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Dopamine neurons create Pavlovian conditioned stimuli with circuit-defined motivational properties.

  • Author(s): Saunders, Benjamin T
  • Richard, Jocelyn M
  • Margolis, Elyssa B
  • Janak, Patricia H
  • et al.
Abstract

Environmental cues, through Pavlovian learning, become conditioned stimuli that guide animals toward the acquisition of rewards (for example, food) that are necessary for survival. We tested the fundamental role of midbrain dopamine neurons in conferring predictive and motivational properties to cues, independent of external rewards. We found that brief phasic optogenetic excitation of dopamine neurons, when presented in temporal association with discrete sensory cues, was sufficient to instantiate those cues as conditioned stimuli that subsequently both evoked dopamine neuron activity on their own and elicited cue-locked conditioned behavior. Notably, we identified highly parcellated functions for dopamine neuron subpopulations projecting to different regions of striatum, revealing dissociable dopamine systems for the generation of incentive value and conditioned movement invigoration. Our results indicate that dopamine neurons orchestrate Pavlovian conditioning via functionally heterogeneous, circuit-specific motivational signals to create, gate, and shape cue-controlled behaviors.

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