Dopamine (DA) neurons in the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) integrate complex inputs to encode multiple signals that influence motivated behaviors via diverse projections. Here, we combine axon-initiated viral transduction with rabies-mediated trans-synaptic tracing and Cre-based cell-type-specific targeting to systematically map input-output relationships of VTA-DA neurons. We found that VTA-DA (and VTA-GABA) neurons receive excitatory, inhibitory, and modulatory input from diverse sources. VTA-DA neurons projecting to different forebrain regions exhibit specific biases in their input selection. VTA-DA neurons projecting to lateral and medial nucleus accumbens innervate largely non-overlapping striatal targets, with the latter also sending extensive extra-striatal axon collaterals. Using electrophysiology and behavior, we validated new circuits identified in our tracing studies, including a previously unappreciated top-down reinforcing circuit from anterior cortex to lateral nucleus accumbens via VTA-DA neurons. This study highlights the utility of our viral-genetic tracing strategies to elucidate the complex neural substrates that underlie motivated behaviors.
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