Unanticipated stressful and rewarding experiences engage the same prefrontal cortex and ventral tegmental area neuronal populations

Alberto Del Arco, Junchol Park, Bita Moghaddam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Brain networks that mediate motivated behavior in the context of aversive and rewarding experiences involve the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and ventral tegmental area (VTA). Neurons in both regions are activated by stress and reward, and by learned cues that predict aversive or appetitive outcomes. Recent studies have proposed that separate neuronal populations and circuits in these regions encode learned aversive versus appetitive contexts. But how about the actual experience? Do the same or different PFC and VTA neurons encode unanticipated aversive and appetitive experiences? To address this, we recorded unit activity and local field poten-tials (LFPs) in the dorsomedial PFC (dmPFC) and VTA of male rats as they were exposed, in the same recording session, to reward (sucrose) or stress (tail pinch) spaced 1 h apart. As expected, experience-specific neuronal responses were observed. Approximately 15–25% of single units in each region responded by excitation or inhibition to either stress or reward, and only stress increased LFP theta oscillation power in both regions and coherence between regions. But the largest number of responses (29% dmPFC and 30% VTA units) involved dual-valence neurons that responded to both stress and reward exposure. Moreover, the temporal profile of neuronal population activity in dmPFC and VTA as assessed by principal component analysis (PCA) were similar during both types of experiences. These results reveal that aversive and rewarding experiences engage overlapping neuronal populations in the dmPFC and the VTA. These populations may provide a locus of vulnerability for stress-related disorders, which are often associated with anhedonia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberENEURO.0029-20.2020
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • Depression
  • Dopamine
  • Ensemble activity
  • Reward
  • Stress
  • Theta oscillations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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