Individual differences in the propensity to approach signals vs goals promote different adaptations in the dopamine system of rats

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2007 Apr;191(3):599-607. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0535-8. Epub 2006 Sep 14.


Rationale: The way an individual responds to cues associated with rewards may be a key determinant of vulnerability to compulsive behavioral disorders.

Objectives: We studied individual differences in Pavlovian conditioned approach behavior and examined the expression of neurobiological markers associated with the dopaminergic system, the same neural system implicated in incentive motivational processes.

Methods: Pavlovian autoshaping procedures consisted of the brief presentation of an illuminated retractable lever (conditioned stimulus) followed by the response-independent delivery of a food pellet (unconditioned stimulus), which lead to a Pavlovian conditioned response. In situ hybridization was performed on brains obtained either following the first or last (fifth) day of training.

Results: Two phenotypes emerged. Sign-trackers (ST) exhibited behavior that seemed to be largely controlled by the cue that signaled impending reward delivery; whereas goal-trackers (GT) preferentially approached the location where the reward was delivered. Following a single training session, ST showed greater expression of dopamine D1 receptor mRNA relative to GT. After 5 days of training, GT exhibited greater expression levels of tyrosine hydroxylase, dopamine transporter, and dopamine D2 receptor mRNA relative to ST.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that the development of approach behavior towards signals vs goal leads to distinct adaptations in the dopamine system. The sign-tracker vs goal-tracker phenotype may prove to be a valuable animal model to investigate individual differences in the way incentive salience is attributed to environmental stimuli, which may contribute to the development of addiction and other compulsive behavioral disorders.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Compulsive Behavior / metabolism
  • Conditioning, Psychological
  • Cues*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopamine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Dopamine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Goals*
  • In Situ Hybridization
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Phenotype
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Dopamine D1 / genetics
  • Receptors, Dopamine D1 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / genetics
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / metabolism
  • Reward
  • Signal Detection, Psychological*
  • Time Factors
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / genetics
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism
  • Up-Regulation


  • Dopamine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Dopamine D1
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine