skip to main content

This content will become publicly available on May 1, 2024

Title: Inhibition of Dopamine Neurons Prevents Incentive Value Encoding of a Reward Cue: With Revelations from Deep Phenotyping

The survival of an organism is dependent on its ability to respond to cues in the environment. Such cues can attain control over behavior as a function of the value ascribed to them. Some individuals have an inherent tendency to attribute reward-paired cues with incentive motivational value, or incentive salience. For these individuals, termed sign-trackers, a discrete cue that precedes reward delivery becomes attractive and desirable in its own right. Prior work suggests that the behavior of sign-trackers is dopamine-dependent, and cue-elicited dopamine in the NAc is believed to encode the incentive value of reward cues. Here we exploited the temporal resolution of optogenetics to determine whether selective inhibition of ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine neurons during cue presentation attenuates the propensity to sign-track. Using male tyrosine hydroxylase(TH)-CreLong Evans rats, it was found that, under baseline conditions, ∼84% ofTH-Crerats tend to sign-track. Laser-induced inhibition of VTA dopamine neurons during cue presentation prevented the development of sign-tracking behavior, without affecting goal-tracking behavior. When laser inhibition was terminated, these same rats developed a sign-tracking response. Video analysis using DeepLabCutTMrevealed that, relative to rats that received laser inhibition, rats in the control group spent more time near the location of the reward cue even when it was not present and were more likely to orient toward and approach the cue during its presentation. These findings demonstrate that cue-elicited dopamine release is critical for the attribution of incentive salience to reward cues.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTActivity of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) during cue presentation is necessary for the development of a sign-tracking, but not a goal-tracking, conditioned response in a Pavlovian task. We capitalized on the temporal precision of optogenetics to pair cue presentation with inhibition of VTA dopamine neurons. A detailed behavioral analysis with DeepLabCutTMrevealed that cue-directed behaviors do not emerge without dopamine neuron activity in the VTA. Importantly, however, when optogenetic inhibition is lifted, cue-directed behaviors increase, and a sign-tracking response develops. These findings confirm the necessity of dopamine neuron activity in the VTA during cue presentation to encode the incentive value of reward cues.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ;  ; ; ; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
DOI PREFIX: 10.1523
Date Published:
Journal Name:
The Journal of Neuroscience
Medium: X Size: p. 7376-7392
["p. 7376-7392"]
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. The estrous cycle is a potent modulator of neuron physiology. In rodents,in vivoventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine (DA) activity has been shown to fluctuate across the estrous cycle. Although the behavioral effect of fluctuating sex steroids on the reward circuit is well studied in response to drugs of abuse, few studies have focused on the molecular adaptations in the context of stress and motivated social behaviors. We hypothesized that estradiol fluctuations across the estrous cycle acts on the dopaminergic activity of the VTA to alter excitability and stress response. We used whole-cell slice electrophysiology of VTA DA neurons in naturally cycling, adult female C57BL/6J mice to characterize the effects of the estrous cycle and the role of 17β-estradiol on neuronal activity. We show that the estrous phase alters the effect of 17β-estradiol on excitability in the VTA. Behaviorally, the estrous phase during a series of acute variable social stressors modulates subsequent reward-related behaviors. Pharmacological inhibition of estrogen receptors in the VTA before stress during diestrus mimics the stress susceptibility found during estrus, whereas increased potassium channel activity in the VTA before stress reverses stress susceptibility found during estrus as assessed by social interaction behavior. This study identifies one possible potassium channel mechanism underlying the increased DA activity during estrus and reveals estrogen-dependent changes in neuronal function. Our findings demonstrate that the estrous cycle and estrogen signaling changes the physiology of DA neurons resulting in behavioral differences when the reward circuit is challenged with stress.

    SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTThe activity of the ventral tegmental area encodes signals of stress and reward. Dopaminergic activity has been found to be regulated by both local synaptic inputs as well as inputs from other brain regions. Here, we provide evidence that cycling sex steroids also play a role in modulating stress sensitivity of dopaminergic reward behavior. Specifically, we reveal a correlation of ionic activity with estrous phase, which influences the behavioral response to stress. These findings shed new light on how estrous cycle may influence dopaminergic activity primarily during times of stress perturbation.

    more » « less
  2. Motivation is a powerful driver of learning and memory. Functional MRI studies show that interactions among the dopaminergic midbrain substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), hippocampus, and nucleus accumbens (NAc) are critical for motivated memory encoding. However, it is not known whether these effects are transient and purely functional, or whether individual differences in the structure of this circuit underlie motivated memory encoding. To quantify individual differences in structure, diffusion-weighted MRI and probabilistic tractography were used to quantify SN/VTA–striatum and SN/VTA–hippocampus pathways associated with motivated memory encoding in humans. Male and female participants completed a motivated source memory paradigm. During encoding, words were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, reward ($1.00), control ($0.00), or punishment (−$1.00). During retrieval, participants were asked to retrieve item and source information of the previously studied words and were rewarded or penalized according to their performance. Source memory for words assigned to both reward and punishment conditions was greater than those for control words, but there were no differences in item memory based on value. Anatomically, probabilistic tractography results revealed a heterogeneous, topological arrangement of the SN/VTA. Tract density measures of SN/VTA–hippocampus pathways were positively correlated with individual differences in reward-and-punishment-modulated memory performance, whereas density of SN/VTA–striatum pathways showed no association. This novel finding suggests that pathways emerging from the human SV/VTA are anatomically separable and functionally heterogeneous. Individual differences in structural connectivity of the dopaminergic hippocampus–VTA loop are selectively associated with motivated memory encoding.

    SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTFunctional MRI studies show that interactions among the SN/VTA, hippocampus, and NAc are critical for motivated memory encoding. This has led to competing theories that posit either SN/VTA–NAc reward prediction errors or SN/VTA–hippocampus signals underlie motivated memory encoding. Additionally, it is not known whether these effects are transient and purely functional or whether individual differences in the structure of these circuits underlie motivated memory encoding. Using diffusion-weighted MRI and probabilistic tractography, we show that tract density measures of SN/VTA–hippocampus pathways are positively correlated with motivated memory performance, whereas density of SN/VTA–striatum pathways show no association. This finding suggests that anatomic individual differences of the dopaminergic hippocampus–VTA loop are selectively associated with motivated memory encoding.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Neurons in the lateral hypothalamic area that express hypocretin (Hcrt) neuropeptides help regulate many behaviors including wakefulness and reward seeking. These neurons project throughout the brain, including to neural populations that regulate wakefulness, such as the locus coeruleus (LC) and tuberomammilary nucleus (TMN), as well as to populations that regulate reward, such as the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and ventral tegmental area (VTA). To address the roles of Hcrt neurons in seemingly disparate behaviors, it has been proposed that Hcrt neurons can be anatomically subdivided into at least two distinct subpopulations: a “medial group” that projects to the LC and TMN, and a “lateral group” that projects to the NAc and VTA. Here, we use a dual retrograde tracer strategy to test the hypotheses that Hcrt neurons can be classified based on their downstream projections and medial/lateral location within the hypothalamus. We found that individual Hcrt neurons were significantly more likely to project to both the LC and TMN or to both the VTA and NAc than would be predicted by chance. In contrast, we found that Hcrt neurons that projected to the LC or TMN were mostly distinct from Hcrt neurons that projected to the VTA or NAc. Interestingly, these two populations of Hcrt neurons are intermingled within the hypothalamus and cannot be classified into medial or lateral groups. These results suggest that Hcrt neurons can be distinguished based on their downstream projections but are intermingled within the hypothalamus.

    more » « less
  4. Humans and other animals make decisions under uncertainty. Choosing an option that provides information can improve decision making. However, subjects often choose information that does not increase the chances of obtaining reward. In a procedure that promotes such paradoxical choice, animals choose between two alternatives: The richer option is followed by a cue that is rewarded 50% of the time (No-info) and the leaner option is followed by one of two cues, one always rewarded (100%), and the other never rewarded, 0% (Info). Since decisions involve comparing the subjective value of options after integrating all their features perhaps including information value, preference for information may rely on cortico-amygdalar circuitry. To test this, male and female Long-Evans rats were prepared with bilateral inhibitory DREADDs in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), basolateral amygdala (BLA), or null virus infusions as a control. Using a counterbalanced design, we inhibited these regions after stable preference was acquired and during learning of new Info and No-info cues. We found that inhibition of ACC, but not OFC or BLA, selectively destabilized choice preference in female rats without affecting latency to choose or the response rate to cues. A logistic regression fit revealed that the previous choice strongly predicted preference in control animals, but not in female rats following ACC inhibition. BLA inhibition tended to decrease the learning of new cues that signaled the Info option, but had no effect on preference. The results reveal a causal, sex-dependent role for ACC in decisions involving information. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract The learning of stimulus-outcome associations allows for predictions about the environment. Ventral striatum and dopaminergic midbrain neurons form a larger network for generating reward prediction signals from sensory cues. Yet, the network plasticity mechanisms to generate predictive signals in these distributed circuits have not been entirely clarified. Also, direct evidence of the underlying interregional assembly formation and information transfer is still missing. Here we show that phasic dopamine is sufficient to reinforce the distinctness of stimulus representations in the ventral striatum even in the absence of reward. Upon such reinforcement, striatal stimulus encoding gives rise to interregional assemblies that drive dopaminergic neurons during stimulus-outcome learning. These assemblies dynamically encode the predicted reward value of conditioned stimuli. Together, our data reveal that ventral striatal and midbrain reward networks form a reinforcing loop to generate reward prediction coding. 
    more » « less