In reward-based learning, synaptic modifications depend on a brief stimulus and a temporally delayed reward, which poses the question of how synaptic activity patterns associate with a delayed reward. A theoretical solution to this so-called distal reward problem has been the notion of activity-generated "synaptic eligibility traces," silent and transient synaptic tags that can be converted into long-term changes in synaptic strength by reward-linked neuromodulators. Here we report the first experimental demonstration of eligibility traces in cortical synapses. We demonstrate the Hebbian induction of distinct traces for LTP and LTD and their subsequent timing-dependent transformation into lasting changes by specific monoaminergic receptors anchored to postsynaptic proteins. Notably, the temporal properties of these transient traces allow stable learning in a recurrent neural network that accurately predicts the timing of the reward, further validating the induction and transformation of eligibility traces for LTP and LTD as a plausible synaptic substrate for reward-based learning.
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