In recent years, the population of neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra (SN) has been examined at multiple levels. The results indicate that the projections, neurochemistry, and receptor and ion channel expression in this cell population vary widely. This review centers on the intrinsic properties and synaptic regulation that control the activity of dopamine neurons. Although all dopamine neurons fire action potentials in a pacemaker pattern in the absence of synaptic input, the intrinsic properties that underlie this activity differ considerably. Likewise, the transition into a burst/pause pattern results from combinations of intrinsic ion conductances, inhibitory and excitatory synaptic inputs that differ among this cell population. Finally, synaptic plasticity is a key regulator of the rate and pattern of activity in different groups of dopamine neurons. Through these fundamental properties, the activity of dopamine neurons is regulated and underlies the wide-ranging functions that have been attributed to dopamine.
Keywords: bursting; dendritic transmission; intrinsic properties; pacemaker; plasticity; synaptic transmission.