Functional dynamics of dopamine synthesis during monetary reward and punishment processing

J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2021 Nov;41(11):2973-2985. doi: 10.1177/0271678X211019827. Epub 2021 May 30.


The assessment of dopamine release with the PET competition model is thoroughly validated but entails disadvantages for the investigation of cognitive processes. We introduce a novel approach incorporating 6-[18F]FDOPA uptake as index of the dynamic regulation of dopamine synthesis enzymes by neuronal firing. The feasibility of this approach is demonstrated by assessing widely described sex differences in dopamine neurotransmission. Reward processing was behaviorally investigated in 36 healthy participants, of whom 16 completed fPET and fMRI during the monetary incentive delay task. A single 50 min fPET acquisition with 6-[18F]FDOPA served to quantify task-specific changes in dopamine synthesis. In men monetary gain induced stronger increases in ventral striatum dopamine synthesis than loss. Interestingly, the opposite effect was discovered in women. These changes were further associated with reward (men) and punishment sensitivity (women). As expected, fMRI showed robust task-specific neuronal activation but no sex difference. Our findings provide a neurobiological basis for known behavioral sex differences in reward and punishment processing, with important implications in psychiatric disorders showing sex-specific prevalence, altered reward processing and dopamine signaling. The high temporal resolution and magnitude of task-specific changes make fPET a promising tool to investigate functional neurotransmitter dynamics during cognitive processing and in brain disorders.

Keywords: Dopamine; functional MRI; functional PET; reward; sex differences.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain Diseases / metabolism
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Dopamine / blood
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology
  • Motivation
  • Positron Emission Tomography Computed Tomography / methods
  • Punishment / psychology*
  • Rats
  • Reaction Time
  • Reward
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology


  • Dopamine