Motivational views of reinforcement: implications for understanding the behavioral functions of nucleus accumbens dopamine

Behav Brain Res. 2002 Dec 2;137(1-2):3-25. doi: 10.1016/s0166-4328(02)00282-6.


Although the Skinnerian 'Empirical Law of Effect' does not directly consider the fundamental properties of stimuli that enable them to act as reinforcers, such considerations are critical for determining if nucleus accumbens dopamine systems mediate reinforcement processes. Researchers who have attempted to identify the critical characteristics of reinforcing stimuli or activities have generally arrived at an emphasis upon motivational factors. A thorough review of the behavioral literature indicates that, across several different investigators offering a multitude of theoretical approaches, motivation is seen by many as being fundamental to the process of reinforcement. The reinforcer has been described as a goal, a commodity, an incentive, or a stimulus that is being approached, self-administered, attained or preserved. Reinforcers also have been described as activities that are preferred, deprived or in some way being regulated. It is evident that this 'motivational' or 'regulatory' view of reinforcement has had enormous influence over the hypothesis that DA directly mediates 'reward' or 'reinforcement' processes. Indeed, proponents of the DA/reward hypothesis regularly cite motivational theorists and employ their language. Nevertheless, considerable evidence indicates that low/moderate doses of DA antagonists, and depletions of DA in nucleus accumbens, can suppress instrumental responding for food while, at the same time, these conditions leave fundamental aspects of reinforcement (i.e. primary or unconditioned reinforcement; primary motivation or primary incentive properties of natural reinforcers) intact. Several complex features of the literature on dopaminergic involvement in reinforcement are examined below, and it is argued that the assertions that DA mediates 'reward' or 'reinforcement' are inaccurate and grossly oversimplified. Thus, it appears as though it is no longer tenable to assert that drugs of abuse are simply turning on the brain's natural 'reward system'. In relation to the hypothesis that DA systems are involved in 'wanting', but not 'liking', it is suggested in the present review that 'wanting' has both directional aspects (e.g. appetite to consume food) and activational aspects (e.g. activation for initiating and sustaining instrumental actions; tendency to work for food). The present paper reviews findings in support of the hypothesis that low doses of DA antagonists and accumbens DA depletions do not impair appetite to consume food, but do impair activational aspects of motivation. This suggestion is consistent with the studies showing that low doses of DA antagonists and accumbens DA depletions alter the relative allocation of instrumental responses, making the animals less likely to engage in instrumental responses that have a high degree of work-related response costs. In addition, this observation is consistent with studies demonstrating that accumbens DA depletions make rats highly sensitive to ratio requirements on operant schedules. Although accumbens DA is not seen as directly mediating appetite to consume food, principles of behavioral economics indicate that accumbens DA could be involved in the elasticity of demand for food in terms of the tendency to pay work-related response costs. Future research must focus upon how specific aspects of task requirements (i.e. ratio requirements, intermittence of reinforcement, temporal features of response requirements, dependence upon conditioned stimuli) interact with the effects of accumbens DA depletions, and which particular factors determine sensitivity to the effects of DA antagonism or depletion.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Appetite / drug effects
  • Appetite / physiology
  • Conditioning, Operant / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology*
  • Corpus Striatum / drug effects
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Dopamine Agonists / pharmacology
  • Dopamine Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Motivation*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / drug effects
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*


  • Dopamine Agonists
  • Dopamine Antagonists
  • Dopamine