Biased Oxytocinergic Modulation of Midbrain Dopamine Systems

Neuron. 2017 Jul 19;95(2):368-384.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.06.003. Epub 2017 Jun 29.


The release of dopamine (DA) regulates rewarding behavior and motor actions through striatum-targeting efferents from ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). Here, we map and functionally characterize axonal projections from oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus to midbrain DA regions. Electrophysiological recordings of DA neurons reveal that both the application of oxytocin and optogenetic stimulation of oxytocinergic terminals suffice to increase DA neuron activity in the VTA but downregulate it in SNc. This biased modulation is mediated by oxytocin and vasopressin G-protein-coupled receptors. Oxytocin release directly activates DA neurons and indirectly inhibits them through local GABA neurons, but the relative magnitudes of the two mechanisms differ in VTA and SNc. Oxytocin-modulated DA neurons give rise to canonical striatal projections. Since hypothalamic oxytocinergic projections also target the striatum, oxytocin is poised to bias the balance of DA tone through multiple sites in vertebrate reward circuits.

Keywords: PVN; SNc; VTA; dopamine; oxytocin; parvocellular.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Mesencephalon / physiology*
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neostriatum / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Reward
  • Substantia Nigra / physiology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*


  • Oxytocin
  • Dopamine