Manipulating the revision of reward value during the intertrial interval increases sign tracking and dopamine release

PLoS Biol. 2018 Sep 26;16(9):e2004015. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2004015. eCollection 2018 Sep.


Recent computational models of sign tracking (ST) and goal tracking (GT) have accounted for observations that dopamine (DA) is not necessary for all forms of learning and have provided a set of predictions to further their validity. Among these, a central prediction is that manipulating the intertrial interval (ITI) during autoshaping should change the relative ST-GT proportion as well as DA phasic responses. Here, we tested these predictions and found that lengthening the ITI increased ST, i.e., behavioral engagement with conditioned stimuli (CS) and cue-induced phasic DA release. Importantly, DA release was also present at the time of reward delivery, even after learning, and DA release was correlated with time spent in the food cup during the ITI. During conditioning with shorter ITIs, GT was prominent (i.e., engagement with food cup), and DA release responded to the CS while being absent at the time of reward delivery after learning. Hence, shorter ITIs restored the classical DA reward prediction error (RPE) pattern. These results validate the computational hypotheses, opening new perspectives on the understanding of individual differences in Pavlovian conditioning and DA signaling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Classical
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Goals
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reward*


  • Dopamine