Delayed rewards lose their value for economic decisions and constitute weaker reinforcers for learning. Temporal discounting of reward value already occurs within a few seconds in animals, which allows investigations of the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms. However, it is difficult to relate these mechanisms to human discounting behavior, which is usually studied over days and months and may engage different brain processes. Our study aimed to bridge the gap by using very short delays and measuring human functional magnetic resonance responses in one of the key reward centers of the brain, the ventral striatum. We used psychometric methods to assess subjective timing and valuation of monetary rewards with delays of 4.0–13.5 s. We demonstrated hyperbolic and exponential decreases of striatal responses to reward predicting stimuli within this time range, irrespective of changes in reward rate. Lower reward magnitudes induced steeper behavioral and striatal discounting. By contrast, striatal responses following the delivery of reward reflected the uncertainty in subjective timing associated with delayed rewards rather than value discounting. These data suggest that delays of a few seconds affect the neural processing of predicted reward value in the ventral striatum and engage the temporal sensitivity of reward responses. Comparisons with electrophysiological animal data suggest that ventral striatal reward discounting may involve dopaminergic and orbitofrontal inputs
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