, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 297-308

Cross-task individual differences in error processing: Neural, electrophysiological, and genetic components


The error-related negativity (ERN) and error positivity (Pe) are electrophysiological markers of error processing thought to originate in the medial frontal cortex. Previous studies using probabilistic reinforcement showed that individuals who learn more from negative than from positive feedback (negative learners) had larger ERNs than did positive learners. These findings support the dopamine (DA) reinforcement-learning hypothesis of the ERN and associated computational models. However, it remains unclear (1) to what extent these effects generalize to tasks outside the restricted probabilistic reinforcement-learning domain and (2) whether there is a dopaminergic source of these effects. To address these issues, we tested subjects’ reinforcement-learning biases behaviorally and recorded EEG during an unrelated recognition memory experiment. Initial recognition responses were speeded, but the subjects were subsequently allowed to self-correct their responses. We found that negative learners, as assessed via probabilistic learning, had larger ERNs in the recognition memory task, suggestive of a common underlying enhanced error-processing mechanism. Negative learners also had enhanced Pes when selfcorrecting errors than did positive learners. Moreover, the ERN and Pe components contributed independently to negative learning. We also tested for a dopaminergic genetic basis of these ERP components. We analyzed the COMT val/met polymorphism, which has been linked to frontal DA levels. The COMT genotype affected Pe (but not ERN) magnitude; met/met homozygotes showed enhanced Pes to self-corrected errors, as compared with val carriers. These results are consistent with a role for the Pe and frontal monoamines in error awareness.

This research was supported by NIMH Grant MH64812, NIDA Grant DA022630, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (NSF Science of Learning Center SBE-0542013). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the TDLC or the National Science Foundation.