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Concept: Reward system


Dopamine has a central role in motivation and reward. Dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) signal the discrepancy between expected and actual rewards (that is, reward prediction error), but how they compute such signals is unknown. We recorded the activity of VTA neurons while mice associated different odour cues with appetitive and aversive outcomes. We found three types of neuron based on responses to odours and outcomes: approximately half of the neurons (type I, 52%) showed phasic excitation after reward-predicting odours and rewards in a manner consistent with reward prediction error coding; the other half of neurons showed persistent activity during the delay between odour and outcome that was modulated positively (type II, 31%) or negatively (type III, 18%) by the value of outcomes. Whereas the activity of type I neurons was sensitive to actual outcomes (that is, when the reward was delivered as expected compared to when it was unexpectedly omitted), the activity of type II and type III neurons was determined predominantly by reward-predicting odours. We ‘tagged’ dopaminergic and GABAergic neurons with the light-sensitive protein channelrhodopsin-2 and identified them based on their responses to optical stimulation while recording. All identified dopaminergic neurons were of type I and all GABAergic neurons were of type II. These results show that VTA GABAergic neurons signal expected reward, a key variable for dopaminergic neurons to calculate reward prediction error.

Concepts: Neuron, Mesolimbic pathway, American films, Game theory, Ventral tegmental area, Reward system, Nervous system, Dopamine


The firing of mesolimbic dopamine neurons is important for drug-induced reinforcement, although underlying genetic factors remain poorly understood. In a recent genome-wide association metaanalysis of alcohol intake, we identified a suggestive association of SNP rs26907 in the ras-specific guanine-nucleotide releasing factor 2 (RASGRF2) gene, encoding a protein that mediates Ca(2+)-dependent activation of the ERK pathway. We performed functional characterization of this gene in relation to alcohol-related phenotypes and mesolimbic dopamine function in both mice and adolescent humans. Ethanol intake and preference were decreased in Rasgrf2(-/-) mice relative to WT controls. Accordingly, ethanol-induced dopamine release in the ventral striatum was blunted in Rasgrf2(-/-) mice. Recording of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area revealed reduced excitability in the absence of Ras-GRF2, likely because of lack of inhibition of the I(A) potassium current by ERK. This deficit provided an explanation for the altered dopamine release, presumably linked to impaired activation of dopamine neurons firing. Functional neuroimaging analysis of a monetary incentive-delay task in 663 adolescent boys revealed significant association of ventral striatal activity during reward anticipation with a RASGRF2 haplotype containing rs26907, the SNP associated with alcohol intake in our previous metaanalysis. This finding suggests a link between the RASGRF2 haplotype and reward sensitivity, a known risk factor for alcohol and drug addiction. Indeed, follow-up of these same boys at age 16 y revealed an association between this haplotype and number of drinking episodes. Together, these combined animal and human data indicate a role for RASGRF2 in the regulation of mesolimbic dopamine neuron activity, reward response, and alcohol use and abuse.

Concepts: Striatum, Mesolimbic pathway, Nucleus accumbens, Drug addiction, Addiction, Ventral tegmental area, Reward system, Dopamine


Humans bargaining over money tend to reject unfair offers, whilst chimpanzees bargaining over primary rewards of food do not show this same motivation to reject. Whether such reciprocal fairness represents a predominantly human motivation has generated considerable recent interest. We induced either moderate or severe thirst in humans using intravenous saline, and examined responses to unfairness in an Ultimatum Game with water. We ask if humans also reject unfair offers for primary rewards. Despite the induction of even severe thirst, our subjects rejected unfair offers. Further, our data provide tentative evidence that this fairness motivation was traded-off against the value of the primary reward to the individual, a trade-off determined by the subjective value of water rather than by an objective physiological metric of value. Our data demonstrate humans care about fairness during bargaining with primary rewards, but that subjective self-interest may limit this fairness motivation.

Concepts: Value theory, Chimpanzee, Human anatomy, Theory of value, Labor theory of value, Motivation, Human, Reward system


People tend to prefer a smaller immediate reward to a larger but delayed reward. Although this discounting of future rewards is often associated with impulsivity, it is not necessarily irrational. Instead it has been suggested that it reflects the decision maker’s greater interest in the ‘me now’ than the ‘me in 10 years’, such that the concern for our future self is about the same as for someone else who is close to us.

Concepts: Reward system, Reward, Decision making


Impulsivity, defined as impaired decision making, is associated with many psychiatric and behavioral disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as well as eating disorders. Recent data indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between food reward behavior and impulsivity, but the mechanisms behind this relationship remain unknown. Here we hypothesize that ghrelin, an orexigenic hormone produced by the stomach and known to increase food reward behavior, also increases impulsivity. In order to assess the impact of ghrelin on impulsivity, rats were trained in three complementary tests of impulsive behavior and choice: differential-reinforcement-of-low-rate (DRL), go/no-go, and delay discounting. Ghrelin injection into the lateral ventricle increased impulsive behavior, as indicated by reduced efficiency of performance in the DRL test, and increased lever pressing during the no-go periods of the go/no-go test. Central ghrelin stimulation also increased impulsive choice, as evidenced by the reduced choice for large rewards when delivered with a delay in the delay discounting test. In order to determine whether signaling at the central ghrelin receptors is necessary for maintenance of normal levels of impulsive behavior, DRL performance was assessed following ghrelin receptor blockade with central infusion of a ghrelin receptor antagonist. Central ghrelin receptor blockade reduced impulsive behavior, as reflected by increased efficiency of performance in the DRL task. To further investigate the neurobiological substrate underlying the impulsivity effect of ghrelin we microinjected ghrelin into the ventral tegmental area, an area harboring dopaminergic cell bodies. Ghrelin receptor stimulation within the VTA was sufficient to increase impulsive behavior. We further evaluated the impact of ghrelin on dopamine-related gene expression and dopamine turnover in brain areas key in impulsive behavior control. This study provides the first demonstration that the stomach-produced hormone, ghrelin, increases impulsivity and also indicates that ghrelin can change two major components of impulsivity-motor and choice impulsivity.Neuropsychopharmacology accepted article preview online, 01 October 2015. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.297.

Concepts: Ligand, Inverse agonist, Reward system, Receptor antagonist, Dopamine, Hormone, Ghrelin, Receptor


The motivation to seek social contact may arise from either positive or negative emotional states, as social interaction can be rewarding and social isolation can be aversive. While ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine (DA) neurons may mediate social reward, a cellular substrate for the negative affective state of loneliness has remained elusive. Here, we identify a functional role for DA neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), in which we observe synaptic changes following acute social isolation. DRN DA neurons show increased activity upon social contact following isolation, revealed by in vivo calcium imaging. Optogenetic activation of DRN DA neurons increases social preference but causes place avoidance. Furthermore, these neurons are necessary for promoting rebound sociability following an acute period of isolation. Finally, the degree to which these neurons modulate behavior is predicted by social rank, together supporting a role for DRN dopamine neurons in mediating a loneliness-like state. PAPERCLIP.

Concepts: Social relation, Motivation, Emotion, Raphe nuclei, Reward system, Ventral tegmental area, Sociology, Dopamine


Novelty-seeking tendencies in adolescents may promote innovation as well as problematic impulsive behaviour, including drug abuse. Previous research has not clarified whether neural hyper- or hypo-responsiveness to anticipated rewards promotes vulnerability in these individuals. Here we use a longitudinal design to track 144 novelty-seeking adolescents at age 14 and 16 to determine whether neural activity in response to anticipated rewards predicts problematic drug use. We find that diminished BOLD activity in mesolimbic (ventral striatal and midbrain) and prefrontal cortical (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) regions during reward anticipation at age 14 predicts problematic drug use at age 16. Lower psychometric conscientiousness and steeper discounting of future rewards at age 14 also predicts problematic drug use at age 16, but the neural responses independently predict more variance than psychometric measures. Together, these findings suggest that diminished neural responses to anticipated rewards in novelty-seeking adolescents may increase vulnerability to future problematic drug use.

Concepts: Frontal lobe, Central nervous system, Reward system, Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, Drug addiction, Attention versus memory in prefrontal cortex, Cerebrum, Brain


The biological mechanisms underlying long-term partner bonds in humans are unclear. The evolutionarily conserved neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) is associated with the formation of partner bonds in some species via interactions with brain dopamine reward systems. However, whether it plays a similar role in humans has as yet not been established. Here, we report the results of a discovery and a replication study, each involving a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject, pharmaco-functional MRI experiment with 20 heterosexual pair-bonded male volunteers. In both experiments, intranasal OXT treatment (24 IU) made subjects perceive their female partner’s face as more attractive compared with unfamiliar women but had no effect on the attractiveness of other familiar women. This enhanced positive partner bias was paralleled by an increased response to partner stimuli compared with unfamiliar women in brain reward regions including the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). In the left NAcc, OXT even augmented the neural response to the partner compared with a familiar woman, indicating that this finding is partner-bond specific rather than due to familiarity. Taken together, our results suggest that OXT could contribute to romantic bonds in men by enhancing their partner’s attractiveness and reward value compared with other women.

Concepts: Female, Nucleus accumbens, Basal ganglia, Amphetamine, Reward system, Mesolimbic pathway, Ventral tegmental area, Dopamine


PURPOSE OF REVIEW: To review research by testing the validity of the analogy between addictive drugs, like cocaine, and hyperpalatable foods, notably those high in added sugar (i.e., sucrose). RECENT FINDINGS: Available evidence in humans shows that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs. Although this evidence is limited by the inherent difficulty of comparing different types of rewards and psychological experiences in humans, it is nevertheless supported by recent experimental research on sugar and sweet reward in laboratory rats. Overall, this research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive. At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine (i.e., more resistant to functional failures), possibly reflecting past selective evolutionary pressures for seeking and taking foods high in sugar and calories. SUMMARY: The biological robustness in the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward may be sufficient to explain why many people can have difficultly to control the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them.

Concepts: Cognitive science, Sweetness, Nicotine, Reward system, Dopamine, Addiction, Sugar, Drug addiction


Experiences affect mood, which in turn affects subsequent experiences. Recent studies suggest two specific principles. First, mood depends on how recent reward outcomes differ from expectations. Second, mood biases the way we perceive outcomes (e.g., rewards), and this bias affects learning about those outcomes. We propose that this two-way interaction serves to mitigate inefficiencies in the application of reinforcement learning to real-world problems. Specifically, we propose that mood represents the overall momentum of recent outcomes, and its biasing influence on the perception of outcomes ‘corrects’ learning to account for environmental dependencies. We describe potential dysfunctions of this adaptive mechanism that might contribute to the symptoms of mood disorders.

Concepts: Perspective, Reward system, Psychology