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Nat Neurosci. 2016 Mar;19(3):479-86. doi: 10.1038/nn.4239. Epub 2016 Feb 8.

Dopamine neurons share common response function for reward prediction error.

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Center for Brain Science, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
MD-PhD Program, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


Dopamine neurons are thought to signal reward prediction error, or the difference between actual and predicted reward. How dopamine neurons jointly encode this information, however, remains unclear. One possibility is that different neurons specialize in different aspects of prediction error; another is that each neuron calculates prediction error in the same way. We recorded from optogenetically identified dopamine neurons in the lateral ventral tegmental area (VTA) while mice performed classical conditioning tasks. Our tasks allowed us to determine the full prediction error functions of dopamine neurons and compare them to each other. We found marked homogeneity among individual dopamine neurons: their responses to both unexpected and expected rewards followed the same function, just scaled up or down. As a result, we were able to describe both individual and population responses using just two parameters. Such uniformity ensures robust information coding, allowing each dopamine neuron to contribute fully to the prediction error signal.

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