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J Neurosci. 2011 May 18;31(20):7471-6. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5731-10.2011.

Duration of inhibition of ventral tegmental area dopamine neurons encodes a level of conditioned fear.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse, Intramural Research Program, Neuronal Networks Section, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, USA.


It is widely accepted that midbrain dopamine (DA) neurons encode actual and expected reward values by phasic alterations in firing rate. However, how DA neurons encode negative events in the environment is still unclear because some DA neurons appear to be depressed and others excited by aversive stimuli. Here, we show that exposing fear-conditioned rats to stimuli predicting electrical shock elicited three types of biphasic responses, each of which contained an inhibitory pause, in neurochemically identified ventral tegmental area (VTA) DA neurons. The duration of the inhibitory pause in these responses of VTA DA neurons was in direct proportion to the increase in respiratory rate reflecting the level of conditioned fear. Our results suggest that the duration of inhibition of VTA DA neurons encodes negative emotional values of signals predicting aversive events in the environment.

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