Abstract Many choice situations require imagining potential outcomes, a capacity that was shown to involve memory brain regions such as the hippocampus. We reasoned that the quality of hippocampus-mediated simulation might therefore condition the subjective value assigned to imagined outcomes. We developed a novel paradigm to assess the impact of hippocampus structure and function on the propensity to favor imagined outcomes in the context of intertemporal choices. The ecological condition opposed immediate options presented as pictures (hence directly observable) to delayed options presented as texts (hence requiring mental stimulation). To avoid confounding simulation process with delay discounting, we compared this ecological condition to control conditions using the same temporal labels while keeping constant the presentation mode. Behavioral data showed that participants who imagined future options with greater details rated them as more likeable. Functional MRI data confirmed that hippocampus activity could account for subjects assigning higher values to simulated options. Structural MRI data suggested that grey matter density was a significant predictor of hippocampus activation, and therefore of the propensity to favor simulated options. Conversely, patients with hippocampus atrophy due to Alzheimer's disease, but not patients with Fronto-Temporal Dementia, were less inclined to favor options that required mental simulation. We conclude that hippocampus-mediated simulation plays a critical role in providing the motivation to pursue goals that are not present to our senses.
Author Summary Economic theory assumes that we assign some sort of value to options that are presented to us in order to choose between them. In neuroscience, evidence suggests that memory brain regions, such as the hippocampus, are involved in imagining novel situations. We therefore hypothesized that the hippocampus might be critical for evaluating outcomes that we need to imagine. This is typically the case in intertemporal choices, where immediate rewards are considered against future gratifications (e.g., a beer now or a bottle of champagne a week from now). Previous investigations have implicated the dorsal prefrontal cortex brain region in resisting immediate rewards. Here we manipulated the mode of presentation (text or picture), such that options were represented either in simulation or in perception systems. Functional neuroimaging data confirmed that hippocampal activity lends a preference to choosing simulated options (irrespective of time), whereas dorsal prefrontal cortex brain activity supports the preference for delayed options (irrespective of presentation mode). Structural neuroimaging in healthy subjects and in patients with brain atrophy, due to Alzheimer's disease (with hippocampal damage) or Fronto-Temporal Dementia (with damage to the prefrontal cortex), further demonstrated the critical implication of the hippocampus. Individuals with higher neuronal density in the hippocampus, but not in the dorsal prefrontal cortex, were more likely to choose future rewards that have to be mentally simulated.