VTA Glutamate Neuron Activity Drives Positive Reinforcement Absent Dopamine Co-release

Neuron. 2020 Sep 9;107(5):864-873.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2020.06.011. Epub 2020 Jun 30.


Like ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine (DA) neurons, VTA glutamate neuron activity can support positive reinforcement. However, a subset of VTA neurons co-release DA and glutamate, and DA release might be responsible for behavioral reinforcement induced by VTA glutamate neuron activity. To test this, we used optogenetics to stimulate VTA glutamate neurons in which tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), and thus DA biosynthesis, was conditionally ablated using either floxed Th mice or viral-based CRISPR/Cas9. Both approaches led to loss of TH expression in VTA glutamate neurons and loss of DA release from their distal terminals in nucleus accumbens (NAc). Despite loss of the DA signal, optogenetic activation of VTA glutamate cell bodies or axon terminals in NAc was sufficient to support reinforcement. These results suggest that glutamate release from VTA is sufficient to promote reinforcement independent of concomitant DA co-release, establishing a non-DA mechanism by which VTA activity can support reward-seeking behaviors.

Keywords: CRISPR/Cas9; VGLUT2; Ventral tegmental area; co-release; dopamine; glutamate; optogenetics; reinforcement; reward.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Optogenetics
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism*


  • Glutamic Acid
  • Dopamine