Phasic excitation of ventral tegmental dopamine neurons potentiates the initiation of conditioned approach behavior: parametric and reinforcement-schedule analyses

Front Behav Neurosci. 2014 May 6;8:155. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00155. eCollection 2014.


Midbrain dopamine neurons are implicated in motivation and learning. However, it is unclear how phasic excitation of dopamine neurons, which is implicated in learning, is involved in motivation. Here we used a self-stimulation procedure to examine how mice seek for optogenetically-induced phasic excitation of dopamine neurons, with an emphasis on the temporal dimension. TH-Cre transgenic mice received adeno-associated viral vectors encoding channelrhodopsin-2 into the ventral tegmental area, resulting in selective expression of the opsin in dopamine neurons. These mice were trained to press on a lever for photo-pulse trains that phasically excited dopamine neurons. They learned to self-stimulate in a fast, constant manner, and rapidly reduced pressing during extinction. We first determined effective parameters of photo-pulse trains in self-stimulation. Lever-press rates changed as a function of the manipulation of pulse number, duration, intensity, and frequency. We then examined effects of interval and ratio schedules of reinforcement on photo-pulse train reinforcement, which was contrasted with food reinforcement. Reinforcement with food inhibited lever pressing for a few seconds, after which pressing was robustly regulated in a goal-directed manner. In contrast, phasic excitation of dopamine neurons robustly potentiated the initiation of lever pressing; however, this effect did not last more than 1 s and quickly diminished. Indeed, response rates markedly decreased when lever pressing was reinforced with inter-reinforcement interval schedules of 3 or 10 s or ratio schedules requiring multiple responses per reinforcement. Thus, phasic excitation of dopamine neurons briefly potentiates the initiation of approach behavior with apparent lack of long-term motivational regulation.

Keywords: approach motivation; conditioning; operant; optogenetics; phasic firing; reinforcement schedule; reward.