The principal features and mechanisms of dopamine modulation in the prefrontal cortex

Prog Neurobiol. 2004 Sep;74(1):1-58. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2004.05.006.


Mesocortical [corrected] dopamine (DA) inputs to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) play a critical role in normal cognitive process and neuropsychiatic pathologies. This DA input regulates aspects of working memory function, planning and attention, and its dysfunctions may underlie positive and negative symptoms and cognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia. Despite intense research, there is still a lack of clear understanding of the basic principles of actions of DA in the PFC. In recent years, there has been considerable efforts by many groups to understand the cellular mechanisms of DA modulation of PFC neurons. However, the results of these efforts often lead to contradictions and controversies. One principal feature of DA that is agreed by most researchers is that DA is a neuromodulator and is clearly not an excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitter. The present article aims to identify certain principles of DA mechanisms by drawing on published, as well as unpublished data from PFC and other CNS sites to shed light on aspects of DA neuromodulation and address some of the existing controversies. Eighteen key features about DA modulation have been identified. These points directly impact on the end result of DA neuromodulation, and in some cases explain why DA does not yield identical effects under all experimental conditions. It will become apparent that DA's actions in PFC are subtle and depend on a variety of factors that can no longer be ignored. Some of these key factors include distinct bell-shaped dose-response profiles of postsynaptic DA effects, different postsynaptic responses that are contingent on the duration of DA receptor stimulation, prolonged duration effects, bidirectional effects following activation of D1 and D2 classes of receptors and membrane potential state and history dependence of subsequent DA actions. It is hoped that these factors will be borne in mind in future research and as a result a more consistent picture of DA neuromodulation in the PFC will emerge. Based on these factors, a theory is proposed for DA's action in PFC. This theory suggests that DA acts to expand or contract the breadth of information held in working memory buffers in PFC networks.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology
  • Nerve Net / metabolism
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / cytology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Receptors, Dopamine / physiology*
  • Schizophrenia / metabolism
  • Schizophrenia / physiopathology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology


  • Receptors, Dopamine
  • Dopamine