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PLoS One. 2013 Jun 5;8(6):e65799. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065799. Print 2013.

Operant self-stimulation of dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra.

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Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, United States of America.


We examined the contribution of the nigrostriatal DA system to instrumental learning and behavior using optogenetics in awake, behaving mice. Using Cre-inducible channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) in mice expressing Cre recombinase driven by the tyrosine hydroxylase promoter (Th-Cre), we tested whether selective stimulation of DA neurons in the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNC), in the absence of any natural rewards, was sufficient to promote instrumental learning in naive mice. Mice expressing ChR2 in SNC DA neurons readily learned to press a lever to receive laser stimulation, but unlike natural food rewards the lever pressing did not decline with satiation. When the number of presses required to receive a stimulation was altered, mice adjusted their rate of pressing accordingly, suggesting that the rate of stimulation was a controlled variable. Moreover, extinction, i.e. the cessation of action-contingent stimulation, and the complete reversal of the relationship between action and outcome by the imposition of an omission contingency, rapidly abolished lever pressing. Together these results suggest that selective activation of SNC DA neurons can be sufficient for acquisition and maintenance of a new instrumental action.

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