Adolescent dopamine neurons represent reward differently during action and state guided learning

Aqilah M. McCane, Meredyth A. Wegener, Mojdeh Faraji, Maria T. Rivera-Garcia, Kathryn G. Wallin-Miller, Vincent D. Costa, Bita Moghaddam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Neuronal underpinning of learning cause-and-effect associations in the adolescent brain remains poorly understood. Two fundamental forms of associative learning are Pavlovian (classical) conditioning, where a stimulus is followed by an outcome, and operant (instrumental) conditioning, where outcome is contingent on action execution. Both forms of learning, when associated with a rewarding outcome, rely on midbrain dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra (SN). We find that, in adolescent male rats, reward-guided associative learning is encoded differently by midbrain dopamine neurons in each conditioning paradigm. Whereas simultaneously recorded VTA and SN adult neurons have a similar phasic response to reward delivery during both forms of conditioning, adolescent neurons display a muted reward response during operant but a profoundly larger reward response during Pavlovian conditioning. These results suggest that adolescent neurons assign a different value to reward when it is not gated by action. The learning rate of adolescents and adults during both forms of conditioning was similar, supporting the notion that differences in reward response in each paradigm may be because of differences in motivation and independent of state versus action value learning. Static characteristics of dopamine neurons, such as dopamine cell number and size, were similar in the VTA and SN of both ages, but there were age-related differences in stimulated dopamine release and correlated spike activity, suggesting that differences in reward responsiveness by adolescent dopamine neurons are not because of differences in intrinsic properties of these neurons but engagement of different dopaminergic networks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9419-9430
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number45
StatePublished - Nov 10 2021


  • Addiction
  • Impulsivity
  • Motivation
  • Pavlovian conditioning
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Schizophrenia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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