All neuronal circuits are subject to neuromodulation. Modulatory effects on neuronal processing and resulting behavioral changes are most commonly reported for higher order cognitive brain functions. Comparatively little is known about how neuromodulators shape processing in sensory brain areas that provide the signals for downstream regions to operate on. In this article, we review the current knowledge about how the monoamine neuromodulators serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline influence the representation of sensory stimuli in the mammalian sensory system. We review the functional organization of the monoaminergic brainstem neuromodulatory systems in relation to their role for sensory processing and summarize recent neurophysiological evidence showing that monoamines have diverse effects on early sensory processing, including changes in gain and in the precision of neuronal responses to sensory inputs. We also highlight the substantial evidence for complementarity between these neuromodulatory systems with different patterns of innervation across brain areas and cortical layers as well as distinct neuromodulatory actions. Studying the effects of neuromodulators at various target sites is a crucial step in the development of a mechanistic understanding of neuronal information processing in the healthy brain and in the generation and maintenance of mental diseases.
Keywords: dopamine; early sensory processing; noradrenaline; primary auditory cortex; primary sensory cortex; primary visual cortex (V1); serotonin.