Dynamic shaping of dopamine signals during probabilistic Pavlovian conditioning

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2015 Jan;117:84-92. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2014.07.010. Epub 2014 Aug 27.


Cue- and reward-evoked phasic dopamine activity during Pavlovian and operant conditioning paradigms is well correlated with reward-prediction errors from formal reinforcement learning models, which feature teaching signals in the form of discrepancies between actual and expected reward outcomes. Additionally, in learning tasks where conditioned cues probabilistically predict rewards, dopamine neurons show sustained cue-evoked responses that are correlated with the variance of reward and are maximal to cues predicting rewards with a probability of 0.5. Therefore, it has been suggested that sustained dopamine activity after cue presentation encodes the uncertainty of impending reward delivery. In the current study we examined the acquisition and maintenance of these neural correlates using fast-scan cyclic voltammetry in rats implanted with carbon fiber electrodes in the nucleus accumbens core during probabilistic Pavlovian conditioning. The advantage of this technique is that we can sample from the same animal and recording location throughout learning with single trial resolution. We report that dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens core contains correlates of both expected value and variance. A quantitative analysis of these signals throughout learning, and during the ongoing updating process after learning in probabilistic conditions, demonstrates that these correlates are dynamically encoded during these phases. Peak CS-evoked responses are correlated with expected value and predominate during early learning while a variance-correlated sustained CS signal develops during the post-asymptotic updating phase.

Keywords: Dopamine; Pavlovian; Reinforcement learning; Reward-prediction error; Uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology*
  • Probability
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward*


  • Dopamine