Is the short-latency dopamine response too short to signal reward error?

Trends Neurosci. 1999 Apr;22(4):146-51. doi: 10.1016/s0166-2236(98)01373-3.


Unexpected stimuli that are behaviourally significant have the capacity to elicit a short-latency, short-duration burst of firing in mesencephalic dopaminergic neurones. An influential interpretation of the experimental data that characterize this response proposes that dopaminergic neurones have a crucial role in reinforcement learning because they signal error in the prediction of future reward. In this article we propose a different functional role for this 'short-latency dopamine response' in the mechanisms that underlie associative learning. We suggest that the initial burst of dopaminergic-neurone firing could represent an essential component in the process of switching attentional and behavioural selections to unexpected, behaviourally important stimuli. This switching response could be a crucial prerequisite for associative learning and might be part of a general short-latency response that is mediated by catecholamines and prepares the organism for an appropriate reaction to biologically significant events. Any act which in a given situation produces satisfaction becomes associated with that situation so that when the situation recurs the act is more likely than before to recur also. E.L. Thorndike (1911) 1.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Animals
  • Association*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Catecholamines / physiology
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Mesencephalon / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Reward
  • Time Factors


  • Catecholamines
  • Dopamine