Aversive events rapidly and potently excite certain dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), promoting phasic increases in the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. This is in apparent contradiction to a wealth of literature demonstrating that most VTA dopamine neurons are strongly activated by reward and reward-predictive cues while inhibited by aversive stimuli. How can these divergent processes both be mediated by VTA dopamine neurons? The answer may lie within the functional and anatomical heterogeneity of the VTA. We focus on VTA heterogeneity in anatomy, neurochemistry, electrophysiology, and afferent/efferent connectivity. Second, recent evidence for a critical role of VTA dopamine neurons in response to both acute and repeated stress will be discussed. Understanding which dopamine neurons are activated by stress, the neural mechanisms driving the activation, and where these neurons project will provide valuable insight into how stress can promote psychiatric disorders associated with the dopamine system, such as addiction and depression.
Keywords: Aversion; Dopamine; Stress; Ventral tegmental area.