Original Investigation


, Volume 191, Issue 3, pp 823-833

First online:

Human reward system activation is modulated by a single dose of olanzapine in healthy subjects in an event-related, double-blind, placebo-controlled fMRI study

  • Birgit AblerAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, University of Ulm Email author 
  • , Susanne ErkAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, Division of Medical Psychology, University of Bonn
  • , Henrik WalterAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, Division of Medical Psychology, University of Bonn

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Olanzapine is a neuroleptic drug widely prescribed to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although it is long known that modulation of the dopamine system is a basic mechanism of action of neuroleptics, their impact on reward functions mediated by dopamine is still poorly understood.


Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we intended to reveal the effects of a single dose of olanzapine on reward-related brain activation.


Eight healthy subjects were each scanned twice, once 5 h after intake of 5 mg of olanzapine and once after intake of placebo in a double-blind cross-over design. Subjects performed a delayed incentive paradigm with monetary reward to investigate reward functions and a breath-holding task as a hypercapnic challenge to reveal unspecific drug effects on the fMRI signal.


Reward-related brain activation in the ventral striatum, anterior cingulate and inferior frontal cortex was reduced on olanzapine compared to placebo. Only the differential effects (high>no reward) in the ventral striatum were independent of overall drug effects as measured with the breath-holding task. Parallel to the differential effects in the ventral striatum, the acceleration of reaction times in the trials with higher rewards was diminished in the olanzapine sessions.


Our behavioural and fMRI results can be interpreted as first evidence from neuroimaging that olanzapine affects the assignment of incentive salience represented by differential activation in dopaminergic brain areas and acceleration of reaction times. This can help to better understand neuroleptic effects in psychiatric diseases. Furthermore, we demonstrate the value of a hypercapnic challenge in functional pharmaco-MRI.


Olanzapine Pharmaco-fMRI Incentive salience Dopaminergic reward system Hypercapnia Healthy subjects