Heterogeneity of dopamine neuron activity across traits and states

Neuroscience. 2014 Dec 12;282:176-97. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.07.034. Epub 2014 Jul 30.


Midbrain dopamine neurons fire irregularly, with interspersed clusters of high-frequency spikes, commonly called 'bursts'. In this review we examine such heterogeneity in activity, and provide insight into how it can participate in psychiatric conditions such as drug addiction. We first describe several techniques used to evaluate dopamine neuron activity, and comment on the different measures that each provides. We next describe the activity of dopamine neurons in 'basal' conditions. Specifically, we discuss how the use of anesthesia and reduced preparations may alter aspects of dopamine cell activity, and how there is heterogeneity across species and regions. We also describe how dopamine cell firing changes throughout the peri-adolescent period and how dopamine neuron activity differs across the population. In the final section, we discuss how dopamine neuron activity changes in response to life events. First, we focus attention on drugs of abuse. Drugs themselves change firing activity through a variety of mechanisms, with effects on firing while drug is present differing from those seen after drug discontinuation. We then review how stimuli that are rewarding, aversive, or salient can evoke changes in firing rate and discharge pattern of dopamine neurons, and provide behavioral relevance of dopamine signaling. Finally, we discuss how stress can modulate dopamine neuron firing and how this may contribute to the role that stressful experiences play in psychiatric disorders such as addiction and depression.

Keywords: anesthesia; bursting; drug addiction; firing; phasic; tonic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena*
  • Mesencephalon / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*