Convergent Processing of Both Positive and Negative Motivational Signals by the VTA Dopamine Neuronal Populations

PLoS One. 2011 Feb 15;6(2):e17047. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017047.


Dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) have been traditionally studied for their roles in reward-related motivation or drug addiction. Here we study how the VTA dopamine neuron population may process fearful and negative experiences as well as reward information in freely behaving mice. Using multi-tetrode recording, we find that up to 89% of the putative dopamine neurons in the VTA exhibit significant activation in response to the conditioned tone that predict food reward, while the same dopamine neuron population also respond to the fearful experiences such as free fall and shake events. The majority of these VTA putative dopamine neurons exhibit suppression and offset-rebound excitation, whereas ∼25% of the recorded putative dopamine neurons show excitation by the fearful events. Importantly, VTA putative dopamine neurons exhibit parametric encoding properties: their firing change durations are proportional to the fearful event durations. In addition, we demonstrate that the contextual information is crucial for these neurons to respectively elicit positive or negative motivational responses by the same conditioned tone. Taken together, our findings suggest that VTA dopamine neurons may employ the convergent encoding strategy for processing both positive and negative experiences, intimately integrating with cues and environmental context.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / cytology*
  • Fear / physiology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / cytology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*