An electrophysiological characterization of ventral tegmental area dopaminergic neurons during differential pavlovian fear conditioning in the awake rabbit

Behav Brain Res. 1999 Mar;99(2):169-79. doi: 10.1016/s0166-4328(98)00102-8.


Recent research has suggested that the mesencephalic dopaminergic (DA) system is activated by stress. For example, alterations in DA metabolites have been found in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) following footshock and immobilization in the rat [15,37]. Furthermore, this activation appears selective to DA neurons within the VTA since no changes were observed within the substantia nigra [15,16]. While this research suggests that DA neurons in the VTA are activated by aversive events, there has been a paucity of electrophysiological research designed to examine the sensory response characteristics of these DA neurons, and in particular their response to stimuli which predict aversive events. The present study was conducted to investigate the response characteristics of DA neurons within the VTA of the awake rabbit to acoustic stimuli which, via Pavlovian aversive conditioning procedures, came to predict the occurrence of a mild shock to the pinna. 45%, of the neurons meeting pre-established criteria for DA neurons demonstrated either significant excitation or inhibition to conditioned aversive stimuli. These neurons responded differentially to CS+ and CS- presentations. Some of these neurons (65%) demonstrated a greater increase in activity during the CS+ compared to the CS-, some (22%,) demonstrated a greater decrease in activity during the CS+ compared to the CS- and some (13%) demonstrated a greater increase in activity during the CS- compared to the CS+. Further, conditioned heart rate responses in the rabbits occurred during the recording of a majority of these neurons. These overall results suggest that conditioned aversive stimuli can affect the firing of VTA DA neurons and that these neurons comprise a heterogenous population with respect to their response profiles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Anesthetics, Local / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Lidocaine / pharmacology
  • Microelectrodes
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Rabbits
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / anatomy & histology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*


  • Anesthetics, Local
  • Lidocaine
  • Dopamine