The plasticity of glutamatergic transmission in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) represents a fundamental mechanism in the modulation of dopamine neuron burst firing and phasic dopamine release at target regions. These processes encode basic behavioral responses, including locomotor activity, learning and motivated behaviors. Here we describe a hitherto unidentified mechanism of long-term synaptic plasticity in mouse VTA. We found that the burst firing in individual dopamine neurons induces a long-lasting potentiation of excitatory synapses on adjacent dopamine neurons that crucially depends on Ca2+ elevations in astrocytes, mediated by endocannabinoid CB1 and dopamine D2 receptors co-localized at the same astrocytic process, and activation of pre-synaptic metabotropic glutamate receptors. Consistent with these findings, selective in vivo activation of astrocytes increases the burst firing of dopamine neurons in the VTA and induces locomotor hyperactivity. Astrocytes play, therefore, a key role in the modulation of VTA dopamine neuron functional activity.
© 2022. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature America, Inc.