The Brain Bases of Adaptive and Effortful Goal Pursuit

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Holmes, Avram


Effortful goal pursuit is a complex process relying on the widespread engagement of a distributed set of large-scale brain systems. To date, investigations of the neural mechanisms underlying effortful goal pursuit have primarily focused on cortico-striatal regions of interest, leaving the role of large-scale networks unclear. To address this gap in our understanding, Chapter 1 provides an overview of the current state of knowledge of the brain bases of goal pursuit, examining the circuits and networks implicated, the role of effort costs, persistence and uncertainty, and the underlying structure that may support observed functional patterns. Chapters 2 through 4 report on a set of studies that examine the neural mechanisms underlying sustained effortful goal pursuit using a combination of novel tasks and large-scale datasets that allow for highly powered analysis of links between structure and functional network topography. Chapter 2 reports a study where participants performed a novel task that allowed for dynamic adjustment of effort expenditure over time across monetary reward and punishment environments. Suggesting a core role for executive functioning in sustaining effortful goal pursuit, frontoparietal network had the highest decoding accuracy for trial-level effort expenditure, followed by networks implicated in attention. Chapter 3 details a study that examined dynamic effort expenditure and outcome uncertainty in conjunction. Here, we examined how dynamic effortful goal pursuit is shaped by risk surrounding outcome, a condition common to goal pursuit in the real world. This study revealed a local signal in posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus that tracks increasing effort expenditure on trials with a low probability of reward, a pattern of response that was not evident in environments with higher probability of reward. To begin to bridge across levels of analysis, Chapter 4 investigates the structural underpinnings supporting the large-scale functional organization of cortex. This study discovered links between spatial patterns of anatomical variability and the large-scale functional architecture of the cerebral cortex, suggesting new possibilities for linking goal pursuit to brain structure. Finally, Chapter 5 discusses conclusions and implications of the current findings and provides ideas for future programs of research that could bridge laboratory tasks and real world behavior.

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