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Nature. 2011 Jan 6;469(7328):53-7. doi: 10.1038/nature09588. Epub 2010 Dec 8.

A selective role for dopamine in stimulus-reward learning.

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Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan, Michigan, USA.


Individuals make choices and prioritize goals using complex processes that assign value to rewards and associated stimuli. During Pavlovian learning, previously neutral stimuli that predict rewards can acquire motivational properties, becoming attractive and desirable incentive stimuli. However, whether a cue acts solely as a predictor of reward, or also serves as an incentive stimulus, differs between individuals. Thus, individuals vary in the degree to which cues bias choice and potentially promote maladaptive behaviour. Here we use rats that differ in the incentive motivational properties they attribute to food cues to probe the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in stimulus-reward learning. We show that intact dopamine transmission is not required for all forms of learning in which reward cues become effective predictors. Rather, dopamine acts selectively in a form of stimulus-reward learning in which incentive salience is assigned to reward cues. In individuals with a propensity for this form of learning, reward cues come to powerfully motivate and control behaviour. This work provides insight into the neurobiology of a form of stimulus-reward learning that confers increased susceptibility to disorders of impulse control.

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