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Trends Neurosci. 1999 Apr;22(4):146-51.

Is the short-latency dopamine response too short to signal reward error?

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Dept of Psychology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK S10 2TP.


Unexpected stimuli that are behaviourally significant have the capacity to elicit a short-latency, short-duration burst of firing in mesencephalic dopaminergic neurones. An influential interpretation of the experimental data that characterize this response proposes that dopaminergic neurones have a crucial role in reinforcement learning because they signal error in the prediction of future reward. In this article we propose a different functional role for this 'short-latency dopamine response' in the mechanisms that underlie associative learning. We suggest that the initial burst of dopaminergic-neurone firing could represent an essential component in the process of switching attentional and behavioural selections to unexpected, behaviourally important stimuli. This switching response could be a crucial prerequisite for associative learning and might be part of a general short-latency response that is mediated by catecholamines and prepares the organism for an appropriate reaction to biologically significant events. Any act which in a given situation produces satisfaction becomes associated with that situation so that when the situation recurs the act is more likely than before to recur also. E.L. Thorndike (1911) 1.

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