Social interactions are motivated behaviors that, in many species, facilitate learning. However, how the brain encodes the reinforcing properties of social interactions remains unclear. In this study, using in vivo recording in freely moving mice, we show that dopamine (DA) neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) increase their activity during interactions with an unfamiliar conspecific and display heterogeneous responses. Using a social instrumental task, we then show that VTA DA neuron activity encodes social prediction error and drives social reinforcement learning. Thus, our findings suggest that VTA DA neurons are a neural substrate for a social learning signal that drives motivated behavior.
© 2021. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature America, Inc.