The brain is wired to predict future outcomes. Experience-dependent plasticity at excitatory synapses within dopamine neurons of the ventral tegmental area, a key region for a broad range of motivated behaviors, is thought to be a fundamental cellular mechanism that enables adaptation to a dynamic environment. Thus, depending on the circumstances, dopamine neurons are capable of processing both positive and negative reinforcement learning strategies. In this review, we will discuss how changes in synaptic plasticity of dopamine neurons may affect dopamine release, as well as behavioral adaptations to different environmental conditions falling at opposite ends of a saliency spectrum ranging from reward to aversion.
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