Encoding of palatability and appetitive behaviors by distinct neuronal populations in the nucleus accumbens
Obesity is a major public health problem. Palatability (i.e., the reinforcing value of food, derived from orosensory cues) is a significant factor in determining food intake and contributes to increased consumption leading to obesity. The nucleus accumbens is a ventral striatal region that is important for both appetitive and consummatory behaviors and has been implicated in modulating palatability. In this study, we investigated palatability encoding in the firing of nucleus accumbens neurons in rats. Nucleus accumbens neurons with significant changes in firing rate during consummatory behavior displayed one of two principal firing patterns. Firing in one class of nucleus accumbens neurons was correlated with the palatability of sucrose reinforcers; changes in neural activity in this class consisted primarily of excitations. Within this group of neurons, a subset was sensitive to the relative value of sucrose reinforcers, as assessed by a behavioral contrast paradigm. A second and distinct population of nucleus accumbens neurons, with changes in firing that were predominantly inhibitions, was not sensitive to reinforcer palatability; rather, these inhibitions were present even during unreinforced bouts of licking. In addition, the onset of these inhibitions typically occurred before the initiation of the licking behavior itself. We propose that two primary classes of nucleus accumbens neurons contribute to neural processing immediately before and during reinforcer consumption: inhibitions related to initiation and maintenance of consummatory behaviors and excitations that encode reinforcer palatability.