In instrumental conditioning, an animal or human can learn to change the probability of making a particular response if that response is associated with rewarding or punishing feedback. Up until now, instrumental conditioning has been concerned with learning of overt behavioral responses. Here we propose a more radical line of investigation. Rather than conditioning overt behavior, we will attempt to directly condition neural activity. This involves training subjects to activate a part of their brain in order to obtain reward. To achieve this we will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure neural responses in real-time. A contingency will be established such that if following presentation of particular cue, a subject produces activity in a target brain area that exceeds a given threshold, a liquid juice reward will be delivered. We will focus on only two brain regions: primary motor cortex, and primary visual cortex.
We aim to show that over the course of training, subjects can learn to increase activity in these brain regions. To achieve this, we will uses shaping procedures, in which we will gradually raise the activity threshold for reward, so that over the course of training subjects must learn to continually increase activity in the target region in order to keep obtaining reward. Neural conditioning could be applied to the management or treatment of a wide variety of neurological or psychiatric disorders, including stroke, epilepsy, chronic pain, or mood disorders.