Dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) play central roles in learning and motivation. In tasks involving rewards, they respond in a stereotyped fashion. They are activated by unpredicted rewards. But when a sensory cue predicts reward, they instead start responding to the cue, while their response to reward attenuates. Moreover, when a predicted reward is omitted, their activity is transiently suppressed. From these observations, it has been postulated that dopamine neurons signal discrepancies between expected and actual reward, i.e., they compute the reward prediction error (RPE). However, it remains unknown how dopamine neurons compute RPE. To understand this question, it is important to know (1) what mechanisms suppress dopamine neurons' responses to reward when the reward is expected, and (2) what mechanisms are responsible for generating the response of dopamine neurons to reward-predicting cues. A previous study in our laboratory has shown that VTA GABA neurons exhibit sustained activations during the delay between a reward-predictive cue and reward. This result suggests that VTA GABA neurons suppress dopamine neurons' responses to reward when the reward is expected. In this proposal, to test this idea experimentally, the sustained activity of VTA GABA neurons will be optogenetically manipulated, and how this manipulation affects dopamine neurons' responses to reward will be examined electrophysiologically. Second, although previous studies have shown that the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and the ventral pallidum(VP) provide large numbers of inhibitory inputs to dopamine neurons, and NAc neurons project to VP, the exact roles of these connections in regulating the activity of dopamine neurons remain unclear. In a preliminary experiment, inactivation of unilateral NAc was found to greatly reduce dopamine neurons' responses to reward-predictive cues. We will experimentally test the hypothesis that a disynaptic, inhibitory pathway from NAc to VP to dopamine neurons is responsible in generating dopamine neurons' responses to reward-predictive cues. In total, this project aims to experimentally test the aforementioned specific hypotheses using integrative approaches in mice. Malfunctions of the dopamine system are associated with a variety of pathological conditions including depression, schizophrenia and addiction. By providing a detailed, circuit-level analysis of dopamine neuron firing, we will provide a framework for understanding how the brain learns from rewards, and how this system can be disrupted in disease.

Public Health Relevance

Malfunction of the midbrain dopamine system is associated with a variety of pathological conditions including depression, schizophrenia and addiction. Understanding neural circuits that regulate dopamine neurons will deepen our understanding of the etiology of these diseases and aid in the design of preventive and therapeutic approaches.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
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Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior Study Section (NMB)
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Rossi, Andrew
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Harvard University
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