Two Applications and a Conclusion
We conclude by highlighting two applications of the core ideas covered in
earlier chapters, with the aim to give a sense of the range of domains to which
ideas from distributional reinforcement learning have been, and may eventually
be applied.
11.1 Multi-Agent Reinforcement Learning
The core setting studied in this book is the interaction between an agent and its
environment. The model of the environment as an unchanging, static Markov
decision process is a good fit for many problems of interest. However, a notable
exception is the case in which the agent finds itself interacting with other
learning agents. Such settings arise in games, both competitive and cooperative,
as well as real-world interactions such as in autonomous driving.
Interactions between distinct agents lead to an incredibly rich space of learning
problems. What is possible is governed by considerations such as how many
agents there are, whether their interests are aligned or competing, whether
they have the same information about the environment, whether they must act
concurrently or sequentially, and whether they can directly communicate with
each other. We choose to focus here on just one of many models for cooperative
multi-agent interactions.
Definition 11.1
(Boutilier, 1996)
A multi-agent Markov decision process
(MMDP) is a Markov decision process (
, P
, P
) in which the action
has a factorised structure
, for some integer N
and finite
non-empty sets
. We refer to N as the number of players in the MMDP.
An N-player MMDP describes N agents interacting with an environment. At
each stage agent i selects an action a
(i = 1,
, N), knowing the current
state x
of the MMDP, but without knowledge of the actions of the other
334 Chapter 11
agents. All agents observe the reward resulting from the joint action (a
, a
and share the joint goal of maximising the discounted sum of rewards arising in
the MMDP; their interests are perfectly aligned.
To compute a joint optimal policy for the agents, one approach is to treat
the problem as an MDP, and use either dynamic programming or temporal-
difference learning methods to compute an optimal policy. These methods
assume centralised computation of the policy, which is then communicated to
the agents to execute.
By contrast, the decentralised control problem is for the agents to arrive at a joint
optimal policy through direct interaction with the environment, and without any
centralised or inter-agent communication; this is pertinent when communication
between agents is impossible or costly, and a model of the environment is
not known. Thus, the agents jointly interact with the environment, producing
transitions of the form (x,(a
, a
), r, x
); agent i observes only ( x, a
, r, x
and must learn from transitions of this form, without observing the actions of
other agents that influenced the transition.
Example 11.2.
The partially stochastic climbing game [Kapetanakis and
Kudenko, 2002, Claus and Boutilier, 1998] is an MMDP with a single non-
terminal state (also known as a matrix game), two players, and three actions per
player. The reward distributions for each combination of the players’ actions
are shown on the left-hand side of Figure 11.1; the first player’s actions index
the rows of this matrix, and the second player’s actions index the columns. All
rewards are deterministic, except for the case of the central element, where
the distribution is uniform over the set {0, 14}. This environment represents a
coordination challenge for the two agents: the optimal strategy is for both to
take the first action, but if either agent deviates from this strategy (by exploring
the value of other actions, for example), negative rewards of large magnitude
are incurred. 4
A concrete example of an approach to the decentralised control problem is
for each agent to independently implement Q-learning with these transitions
[Tan, 1993]. The centre panels of Figure 11.1 show the result of the agents
using Q-learning to learn in the partially stochastic climbing game. Both agents
act using an
-greedy policy, with
decaying linearly during the interaction
(beginning at 1 and ending at 0), and use a step size of
= 0.001 to update their
action values. Due to the exploration the agents are undertaking, the first action
is judged as worse than the third action by both agents, and both quickly move
Two Applications and a Conclusion 335
11 –30 0
–30 U({0, 14}) 6
Figure 11.1
Table specifying reward distributions for the partially stochastic climbing game.
Learned action values for each player-action combination under Q-learning (first
column) and a distributional algorithm (second column).
to using the third action, hence not discovering the optimal behaviour for this
The failure of the Q-learning agents to reach the optimal behaviour stems from
the fact that from the point of view of an individual agent, the environment it is
interacting with is no longer Markov; it contains other learning agents, which
may adapt their behaviour as time progresses, and in particular in response to
changes in the behaviour of the individual agent itself. Redesigning learning
rules such as Q-learning to take into account the changing behaviour of other
agents in the environment is a core means of encouraging better cooperation
between agents in such settings in multi-agent reinforcement learning.
Hysteretic Q-learning [Matignon et al., 2007, HQL] is a modification of Q-
learning that swaps the usual risk-neutral value update for a rule that instead
tends to learn an optimistic estimate of the value associated with an action.
Specifically, given an observed transition (x, a, r, x
), HQL performs the update
Q(x, a) Q(x, a)+
{ > 0} + { < 0}
= r +
, a)–Q(x, a) is the TD error associated with the transi-
tion. Here, 0 <
are asymmetric learning rates associated with negative and
positive TD errors. By making larger updates in response to positive TD errors,
the learnt Q-values end up placing more weight on high-reward outcomes. In
fact, this update can be shown to be equivalent to following the negative gradient
336 Chapter 11
of the expectile loss encountered in Section 8.6:
Q(x, a) Q(x, a)+( + )|
| ,
. The values learnt by HQL are therefore a kind of optimistic
summary of the agent’s observations. The motivation for learning values in this
way is that low-reward outcomes may be due to the exploratory behaviour from
other agents, which may be avoided as learning progresses, while rewarding
transitions may eventually occur more often, as other agents improve their
policies and are able to more reliably produce these outcomes. Matignon et al.
[2007] show that hysteretic Q-learning can lead to improved coordination
among decentralised agents compared to independent Q-learning in a range of
Distributional reinforcement learning provides a natural framework to build
optimistic learning algorithms of this form, by combining an algorithm for
learning representations of return distributions (Chapters 5 and 6) with a risk-
sensitive policy derived from these distributions (Chapter 7). To illustrate this
point, we compare the results of independent Q-learning on the partially stochas-
tic climbing environment with the case where both agents use a distributional
algorithm in which distributions are updated using categorical TD updates. We
take distributions supported on {–30, –29,
, 30}, and define greedy actions
defined in a risk-sensitive manner; in particular, the greedy action is the one
with the greatest expectile at level
, calculated from the categorical distribution
estimates (see Chapter 7), with
linearly decaying from 0.9 to 0.7 throughout
the course of learning.
Figure 11.1 shows the learnt action values by both distributional agents in
this setting; the exploration schedule and learning rates are the same as for
the independent Q-learning agents. This level of optimism means that action
values are not overly influenced by the exploration of other agents, and is also
not too high so as to be distracted by the (stochastic) outcome of 14 available
when both agents play the second action, and indeed the agents converge to the
optimal joint policy in this case. We remark however that the optimism level
chosen here is tuned to illustrate the beneficial effects that are possible with
distributional approaches to decentralised cooperative learning, and in general
other choices of risk-sensitive policies will not lead to optimal behaviour in this
environment. This is illustrative of a broader tension: while we would like to be
optimistic about the behaviour of other learning agents, the approach inevitably
leads to optimism in aleatoric environment randomness (in this example, the
randomness in the outcome when both players select the second action). With
Two Applications and a Conclusion 337
both distributional and non-distributional approaches to decentralised multi-
agent learning, it is difficult to treat these sources of randomness differently
from one another.
The majority of work in distributional multi-agent reinforcement learning has
focused on the case of large-scale environments, using deep reinforcement
learning approaches such as those described in Chapter 10. Lyu and Amato
[2020] introduce Likelihood Hysteretic IQN, which uses return distribution
learnt by an IQN architecture to adapt the level of optimism used in value func-
tion estimates throughout training. Da Silva et al. [2019] also found benefits
from using risk-sensitive policies based on learnt return distributions. In the
centralised training, decentralised execution regime [Oliehoek et al., 2008],
Sun et al. [2021] and Qiu et al. [2021] empirically explore the combination of
distributional reinforcement learning with previously-established value func-
tion factorisation methods [Sunehag et al., 2017, Rashid et al., 2018, 2020].
Deep distributional reinforcement learning agents have also been successfully
employed in cooperative multi-agent environments without making any use of
learnt return distributions beyond expected values. The Rainbow agent [Hessel
et al., 2018], which makes use of the C51 algorithm described in Chapter 10,
forms a baseline for the Hanabi challenge [Bard et al., 2020]. Combinations
of deep reinforcement learning with distributional reinforcement learning have
found application in a variety of multi-agent problems to date; we expect there
to be further experimentally-driven research in this area of application, and also
remark that the theoretical understanding of how such algorithms perform is
largely open.
11.2 Computational Neuroscience
Machine learning and reinforcement learning often take inspiration from psy-
chology, neuroscience, and animal behaviour. Examples include convolutional
neural networks [LeCun and Bengio, 1995], experience replay [Lin, 1992],
episodic control [Pritzel et al., 2017], and navigation by grid cells [Banino et al.,
2018]. Conversely, algorithms developed for artificial agents have proven useful
as computational models for building theories regarding the mechanisms of
learning in humans and animals; some authors have argued, for example, on
the plausibility of backpropagation in the brain [Lillicrap et al., 2016a]. As
we will see in this section, distributional reinforcement learning is also useful
in this regard, and serves to explain some of the fine-grained behaviour of
dopaminergic neurons in the brain.
338 Chapter 11
Dopamine (DA) is a neurotransmitter associated with learning, motivation,
motor control and attention. Dopaminergic neurons, especially those concen-
trated in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra pars compacta
(SNc) regions of the midbrain release dopamine along several pathways pro-
jecting throughout the brain. In particular, to areas known to be involved in
reinforcement, motor function, executive functions (such as planning, decision
making, selective attention and working memory), and associative learning.
Furthermore, despite their relatively modest numbers (making up less than
0.001% of the neurons in the human brain) are crucial to the development
and functioning of human intelligence. This can be seen especially acutely by
dopamine’s implication in a range of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s
disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.
The Rescorla-Wagner model [Rescorla and Wagner, 1972] posits that the learn-
ing of conditioned behaviour in humans and animals is error-driven . That is,
learning occurs as the consequence of a mismatch between the learner’s predic-
tions and the observed outcome. The Rescorla-Wagner equation takes the form
of a familiar update rule:
V V + (r V)
, (11.1)
where V is the predicted reward, r the observed reward, and
a learning rate.
Here, the term
plays the same role as the step size parameter introduced in
Chapter 3, but describes the modelled rate at which the animal learns rather
than a parameter proper.
Rescorla and Wagner’s model explained, for example, classic experiments
in which rabbits learned to blink in response to a light cue predictive of an
unpleasant puff of air (an example of Pavlovian conditioning). The model
also explained a learning phenomenon called blocking [Kamin, 1968]: having
learned that the light cue predicts a puff of air, the rabbits did not become
conditioned to a second cue (an audible tone) when that cue was presented
concurrently with the light. This gave support to the theory of error-driven
learning, as opposed to associative learning purely based on co-occurrence
[Pavlov, 1927].
Temporal-difference learning is also a type of error-driven learning, one that
accounts for the temporally-extended nature of prediction. In its simplest form,
This notation resembles, but is not quite the same as that of previous chapters; yet it is common
in the field [see e.g. Ludvig et al., 2011].
82. Admittedly the difference is subtle.
Two Applications and a Conclusion 339
TD learning is described by the equation
V V + (r + V
TD error
, (11.2)
which improves on the Rescorla-Wagner model by decomposing the learning
target into an immediate reward (observed) and a prediction V
about future
rewards (guessed). Just as the Rescorla-Wagner equation explains blocking,
temporal-difference learning explains how cues can themselves generate pre-
diction errors (by a process of bootstrapping). This in turn gives rise to the
phenomenon of second-order conditioning. Second-order conditioning arises
when a secondary cue is presented anterior to the main cue, which itself predicts
the reward. In this case, the secondary cue elicits a prediction of the future
reward, despite only being paired with the main cue and not the reward itself.
In one set of experiments, the dopaminergic (DA) neurons of macaque monkeys
were recorded as they learned that a light is predictive of the availability of a
reward (juice, received by pressing a lever).
In the absence of reward, DA
neurons exhibit a sustained level of activity, given by the baseline or tonic
firing rate. Prior to learning, when a reward was delivered, the monkeys’ DA
neurons showed a sudden, short, burst of activity, known as phasic firing (Figure
11.2a, top). After learning, the DA neurons’ firing rate no longer deviated
from the baseline when receiving the reward (Figure 11.2a, middle). However,
phasic activity was now observed following the appearance of the cue (CS, for
conditional stimulus).
One interpretation for these learning-dependent increases in firing rate is that
they encode a positive prediction error. The increase in firing rate at the appear-
ance of the cue, in particular, gives evidence that the cue itself eventually induces
a reward-based prediction error (RPE). Even more suggestive of an error-driven
learning process, omitting the juice reward following the cue resulted in a
decrease in firing rate (a negative prediction error) at the time at which a reward
was previously received; simultaneously, the cue still resulted in an increased
firing rate (Figure 11.2a, bottom).
The RPE interpretation was further extended when Montague et al. [1996]
showed that temporal-difference learning predicts the occurrence of a par-
ticularly interesting phenomenon found in an early experiment by Schultz
et al. [1993]. In this experiment, macaque monkeys learned that juice could be
obtained by pressing one of two levers in response to a sequence of coloured
For a more complete review of reinforcement learning models of dopaminergic neurons and
experimental findings, see Schultz [2002], Glimcher [2011], Daw and Tobler [2014].
340 Chapter 11
No prediction
Reward occurs
Reward predicted
Reward occurs
Reward predicted
No reward occurs
(a) (b)
Instruction Trigger
-0.5 0.5 2.5 3.0 -0.5 0.5 s
03.5 s
Instruction Trigger
-0.5 0 0.5 1.0 -0.5 0.5 s
01.5 s
Instruction + Trigger
-1.5 -1.0 0.5 0 -0.5 0.5 s
00.5 s
Figure 11.2
DA activity when an unpredicted reward occurs, when a cue predicts a reward and it
occurs, and when a cue predicts a reward but it is omitted. The data is presented both in
raster plots showing firing of a single dopaminergic neuron and as peri-stimulus time
histograms (PSTHs) histograms capturing neuron firing rate over time. Conditioned
stimulus (CS), marks the onset of the cue, with delivery or omission of reward indicated
by (R) or (no R). From Schultz et al. [1997]. Reprinted with permission from AAAS.
PSTHs averaged over a population of dopamine neurons for three conditions examining
temporal credit assignment. From Schultz et al. [1993], copyright 1993 Society for
lights. One of two lights (green, the “instruction”) first indicated which lever to
press. Then, a second light (yellow, the “trigger”) indicated when to press the
lever, and thus receive an apple juice reward effectively providing a first-order
Figure 11.2b shows recordings from DA neurons after conditioning. When
the instruction light was provided at the same time as the trigger light the
DA neurons responded as before: positively in response to the cue. When the
instruction occurred consistently one second before the trigger, the DA neurons
showed an increase in firing only in response to the earlier of the two cues.
However, when the instruction was provided at a random time prior to the
trigger, the DA neurons now increased their firing rate in response to both
events encoding a positive error from receiving the unexpected instruction
and the necessary error from the unpredictable trigger. In conclusion, varying
the time interval between these two lights produced results that could not be
completely explained by the Rescorla-Wagner model, but were consistent with
TD learning.
The temporal-difference learning model of dopaminergic neurons suggests that,
in aggregate, these neurons modulate their firing rate in response to unexpected
Two Applications and a Conclusion 341
rewards or in response to an anticipated reward failing to appear. In particular,
the model makes two predictions: first, that deviations from the tonic firing rate
should be proportional to the magnitude of the prediction error (because the
TD error in Equation 11.2 is linear in r), and second, that the tonic firing rate
in a trained animal should correspond to the situation in which the received
reward matches the expected value (that is, r +
= V, in which case there is
no prediction error).
For a given DA neuron, let us call reversal point the amount of reward r
which, if a reward r < r
is received, the neuron expresses a negative error and
if a reward r > r
is received, it expresses a positive error.
Under the TD learn-
ing model, individual neurons should show approximately identical reversal
points (up to an estimation error) and should weigh positive and negative errors
equally (Figure 11.3a). However, experimental evidence suggests otherwise
that individual neurons instead respond to the same cue in a manner spe-
cific to each neuron, and asymmetrically depending on the reward’s magnitude
(Figure 11.3b).
Eshel et al. [2015] measured the firing rate of individual DA neurons of mice in
response to a random reward 0.1, 0.3, 1.2, 2.5, 5, 10, or 20
L of juice, chosen
uniformly at random for each trial). Figure 11.4a shows the change in firing rate
in response to each reward, after conditioning, as a function of each neuron’s
imputed reversal point [see Dabney et al., 2020b, for details]. The analysis
illustrates a marked asymmetry in the response of individual neurons to reward;
the neurons with the lowest reversal points, in particular, increase their firing
rate for almost all rewards.
We may explain this phenomenon by considering a per-neuron update rule that
incorporates an asymmetric step size, known as the distributional TD model.
Because the neurons’ change in firing rate does in general vary monotonically
with the magnitude of the reward, it is natural to consider an incremental
algorithm derived from expectile dynamic programming (Section 8.6). As
before, let (
be values in the interval (0, 1), and (
a set of adjustable
locations. Here, i corresponds to an individual DA neuron, such that
the predicted future reward for which this neuron computes an error, and
determines the asymmetry in its step size. For a sample reward r, the negative
gradient of the expectile loss (Equation 8.13) with respect to
yields the update
Assuming that the return is r, i.e. there is no future value V
. We can more generally define the
reversal point with respect to an observed return, but this distinction is not needed here.
342 Chapter 11
3 2 1 0 1 2
Firing Rate (variance normalized)
Cell (Sorted by reversal point)
1.0 0.5 0.0 0.5 1.0 1.5
Firing Rate (variance normalized)
Cell (Sorted by reversal point)
(a) (b)
Figure 11.3
The temporal-difference learning model of DA neurons predicts that, while individual
neurons may show small variations in reversal point (e.g. due to estimation error), their
response should be linear in the TD error and weight positive and negative errors
equally. Neurons are sorted from top to bottom in decreasing order of reversal point.
Measurements of the change in firing rate in response to each of the seven possible reward
magnitudes (indicated by colour) for individual dopaminergic neurons in mice [Eshel
et al., 2015], sorted in decreasing order of imputed reversal point. These measurements
exhibit marked deviation from the linear error-response predicted by the TD learning
+ |
{r <
expectile error
, (11.3)
Here, the term |
{r <
| constitutes an asymmetric step size.
Under this model, the reversal point of a neuron corresponds to the prediction
, and therefore a neuron’s deviation from its tonic firing rate corresponds to
the expectile error. In turn, the slope or rate at which the firing rate is reduced
or increased as a function of the error reflects in some sense the neuron’s “step
{g <
|. By measuring the slope of a neuron’s change in firing rate
for rewards smaller and larger than the imputed reversal point, one finds that
different neurons indeed exhibit asymmetric slopes around their reversal point
(Figure 11.4a).
Given the slopes
above and below the reversal point, respectively, for
an individual neuron, we can recover an estimate of the asymmetry parameter
according to
Two Applications and a Conclusion 343
Reward minus reversal point
Firing Rate
Reversal point
(a) (b)
Figure 11.4
Examples of the change in firing rate in response to various reward magnitudes for
individual dopaminergic (DA) neurons showing asymmetry about the reversal point.
Each plot corresponds to an individual DA neuron, and each point within, with error bars
showing standard deviation over trials, shows that neuron’s change in firing rate upon
receiving one of the seven reward magnitudes. Solid lines correspond to the piecewise
linear best fit around the reversal point.
Estimated asymmetries strongly correlate
with reversal points as predicted by distributional TD. For all measured DA neurons
(n = 40), we show the estimated reversal point versus the cell’s asymmetry. We observe a
strong positive correlation between the two, as predicted by the distributional TD model.
With this change of variables, one finds a strong correlation between indi-
vidual neurons’ reversal points (
) and their inferred asymmetries (
); see
Figure 11.4b. This gives evidence that the diversity in responses to rewards of
different magnitudes is structured consistent with an expectile representation of
the distribution learned through asymmetric scaling of prediction errors, that is,
evidence supporting the distributional TD model of dopamine.
As a whole, these results suggest that the behaviour of dopaminergic neurons is
best modelled not with a single global update rule, such as in TD learning, but
rather a collection of update rules which together describe a richer prediction
about future rewards a distributional prediction. While the downstream uses
of such a prediction remain to be identified, one can naturally imagine that there
should be behavioural correlates involving risk and uncertainty. Other open
questions around distributional RL in the brain include: What are the biological
mechanisms that give rise to the diverse asymmetric responses in DA neurons?
How, and to what degree, are DA neurons and those which encode reversal
points coupled, as required by the distributional TD model? Does distributional
RL confer representation learning benefits in biological agents as it does in
artificial agents?
344 Chapter 11
11.3 Conclusion
The act of learning is fundamentally an anticipatory activity. It allows us to
deduce that eating certain kinds of foods might be hazardous to our health, and
consequently avoid them. It helps the footballer decide how to kick the ball into
the opposite team’s net, and the goalkeeper to prepare for the save before the
kick is even made. It informs us that studying leads to better grades; experience
teaches us to avoid the highway at rush hour. In a rich, complex world, many
phenomena carry a part of unpredictability which in reinforcement learning
we model as randomness. In that respect, learning to predict the full range of
possible outcomes the return distribution is only natural: it improves our
understanding of the environment “for free”, in the sense that it can be done in
parallel with the usual learning of expected returns.
For the authors of this book, the roots of the distributional perspective lie
in deep reinforcement learning, as a technique for obtaining more accurate
representations of the world. By now, it is clear that this is but one potential
application. Distributional reinforcement learning has proven useful in settings
far beyond what was expected, including to model the behaviours of co-evolving
agents and the dynamics of dopaminergic neurons. We expect this trend to
continue, and look forward to seeing its greater application in mathematical
finance, engineering, and life sciences. We hope this book will provide a sturdy
foundation on which these ideas can be built.
11.4 Bibliographical Remarks
Game theory and the study of multi-agent interactions is a research disci-
pline that dates back almost a century [von Neumann, 1928, Morgenstern and
von Neumann, 1944]. Shoham and Leyton-Brown [2009] provides a modern
summary of a wide range of topics relating to multi-agent interactions, and
Oliehoek and Amato [2016] provide a recent overview from a reinforcement
learning perspective. The MMDP model described here was introduced by
Boutilier [1996], and forms a special case of the general class of Markov games
[Shapley, 1953, van der Wal, 1981, Littman, 1994]. A commonly-encountered
generalisation of the MMDP is the Dec-POMDP [Bernstein et al., 2002], which
also allows for partial observations of the state. Lauer and Riedmiller [2000]
propose an optimistic algorithm with convergence guarantees in deterministic
MMDPs, and many other (non-distributional) approaches to decentralised con-
trol in MMDPs have since been considered in the literature (see e.g. Bowling
and Veloso [2002], Panait et al. [2003, 2006], Matignon et al. [2007, 2012], Wei
and Luke [2016]), including in combination with deep reinforcement learning
[Tampuu et al., 2017, Omidshafiei et al., 2017, Palmer et al., 2018, 2019]. There
Two Applications and a Conclusion 345
is some overlap between certain classes of these techniques and distribution
reinforcement learning in stateless environments, as noted by Rowland et al.
[2021], on which the distributional example in this section is based.
A thorough review of the research surrounding computational models
of DA neurons is beyond the scope of this book. For the machine learning
researcher, Niv [2009] and Sutton and Barto [2018] provide a broad discus-
sion and historical account of the connections between neuroscience and
reinforcement learning; see also the primer by Ludvig et al. [2011] for a
concise introduction to the topic, and the work by Daw [2003] for a neuroscien-
tific perspective on computational models. Other recent, neuroscience-focused
overviews are provided by Shah [2012], Daw and Tobler [2014], and Lowet
et al. [2020]. Here we highlight a few key works due to their historical relevance,
as well as those which provide context into both compatible and competing
hypotheses surrounding dopamine-based learning in the brain.
As discussed in Section 11.2, Montague et al. [1996] and Schultz et al. [1997]
provided the early experimental findings that led to the formulation of the
temporal-difference model of dopamine. These results followed mounting evi-
dence of limitations in the Rescorla-Wagner model [Schultz, 1986, Schultz and
Romo, 1990, Ljungberg et al., 1992, Miller et al., 1995].
Dopamine’s role in learning [White and Viaud, 1991], motivation [Mogenson
et al., 1980, Cagniard et al., 2006], motor control [Barbeau, 1974], and atten-
tion [Nieoullon, 2002] has been extensively studied and we recommend the
interested reader consult Wise [2004] for a thorough review.
We arrived at our claim of less than 0.001% of the brain’s neurons being
dopaminergic based upon the following two results. First, there are approxi-
mately 86
8 billion neurons in the adult human brain [Azevedo et al., 2009],
with only 400k -600k dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain which itself con-
tains approximately 75% of all DA neurons in the human brain [Hegarty et al.,
Much of the work untangling the role of DA in the brain was borne out of
studying associated neurological disorders. The loss of midbrain DA neurons
is seen as the neurological hallmark of Parkinson’s disease [Hornykiewicz,
1966, German et al., 1989], while ADHD is associated with reduced DA activity
[Olsen et al., 2021], and the connections between dysregulation of the dopamine
system and schizophrenia have continued to be studied and refined for many
years [Braver et al., 1999, Howes and Kapur, 2009].
346 Chapter 11
Recently, Muller et al. [2021] used distributional RL to model reward-related
responses in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This may suggest a more ubiquitous
role for distributional RL in the brain.
While the distributional TD model posits that the population of DA neurons
differ in their sensitivity to positive versus negative prediction errors, several
alternative models have been proposed to explain the observed diversity in
dopaminergic response. Kurth-Nelson and Redish [2009] propose that the brain
encodes value with a distributed representation over temporal discounts, with a
multitude of value prediction channels differing in their discount factor. Such
a model can readily explain observations of purported hyperbolic discounting
in humans and animals. We also note that these neuroscientific models have
themselves inspired recent work in deep reinforcement learning which combines
multiple discount factors and distributional reinforcement learning [Fedus et al.,
Another line of research proposes to generalise temporal-difference learning to
prediction errors over reward-predictive features [Schultz, 2016, Gardner et al.,
2018]. These are motivated by findings in neuroscience which have shown that
DA neurons may increase their firing in response to unexpected changes in
sensory features, independent of anticipated reward [Takahashi et al., 2017,
Stalnaker et al., 2019]. This generalisation of the TD model is grounded in
the concept of successor representations [Dayan, 1993], but is perhaps more
precisely characterised as successor features [Barreto et al., 2017], where the
features are themselves predictive of reward.
Recently, Tano et al. [2020] proposed a temporal-difference learning algorithm
for distributional reinforcement learning which uses a variety of discount fac-
tors, reward sensitivities and multi-step updates allowing the population to
make distributional predictions with a linear operator. The advantage of such
a model is that it is local, in the sense that there need not be any communica-
tion between the various value prediction channels, whereas distributional TD
assumes significant communication amongst the DA neurons.
Two Applications and a Conclusion 347
348 Two Applications and a Conclusion