The role of learning-related dopamine signals in addiction vulnerability

Prog Brain Res. 2014;211:31-77. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63425-2.00003-9.


Dopaminergic signals play a mathematically precise role in reward-related learning, and variations in dopaminergic signaling have been implicated in vulnerability to addiction. Here, we provide a detailed overview of the relationship between theoretical, mathematical, and experimental accounts of phasic dopamine signaling, with implications for the role of learning-related dopamine signaling in addiction and related disorders. We describe the theoretical and behavioral characteristics of model-free learning based on errors in the prediction of reward, including step-by-step explanations of the underlying equations. We then use recent insights from an animal model that highlights individual variation in learning during a Pavlovian conditioning paradigm to describe overlapping aspects of incentive salience attribution and model-free learning. We argue that this provides a computationally coherent account of some features of addiction.

Keywords: addiction; dopamine; incentive salience; model-free; prediction error; reinforcement learning; sign-tracking.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward
  • Signal Transduction
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*


  • Dopamine