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Dopamine, learning and motivation


The hypothesis that dopamine is important for reward has been proposed in a number of forms, each of which has been challenged. Normally, rewarding stimuli such as food, water, lateral hypothalamic brain stimulation and several drugs of abuse become ineffective as rewards in animals given performance-sparing doses of dopamine antagonists. Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens has been linked to the efficacy of these unconditioned rewards, but dopamine release in a broader range of structures is implicated in the 'stamping-in' of memory that attaches motivational importance to otherwise neutral environmental stimuli.

Key Points

  • Brain dopamine has been linked to both motor and motivational functions. Several motivational hypotheses have been challenged and found inadequate, but it remains clear that dopamine is vital for the 'stamping-in' of stimulus–reward and response–reward associations.

  • Stimulus–reward associations are, in turn, crucial for the subsequent motivation in a previous-reward situation. Response habits are triggered by environmental stimuli that have been previously associated with reward, and the initiation of such response habits is not dependent on immediate dopamine function. If repeated with dopamine function blocked, however, the old stimulus–reward associations are extinguished and response motivation progressively weakens.

  • While the motivational effectiveness of reward-associated stimuli does not require immediate dopamine function, phasic dopamine elevations can nonetheless amplify stimulus effectiveness. This amplification is thought to be a dopamine function in the nucleus accumbens.

  • The role of dopamine in the stamping-in of reward associations might be much less localized. Dopamine seems to have important roles in the consolidation of memory in various structures — structures that are linked to different kinds of learning or to the learning of different things.

  • A full appreciation of the role of dopamine in motivation must be on the basis of an understanding of not only the role of dopamine in immediate behavioural arousal, but also its role in the learning and memory of learned motivational stimuli.

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I thank Y. Shaham, B. Hoffer, S. Ikemoto and A. Zangen for critical comments on an earlier draft.

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cocaine and amphetamines




A drug that blocks the effects of dopamine by binding to and occluding the dopamine receptor.


The strengthening of stimulus–stimulus, stimulus–response or response–reward associations that results from the timely presentation of a reward. The term applies to both Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning, though it is most frequently used with the latter.


In the noun form (a reward), an object or event that elicits approach and is worked for; its analogue is 'a reinforcer'. In the verb form (to reward) the term is synonymous with 'to reinforce'. As a verb it is used with respect to instrumental but not Pavlovian conditioning.


The energizing effects on behaviour of internal stimuli associated with tissue need or hormonal level, or of external stimuli associated with past rewards ('incentive motivational' stimuli).


The precipitation of a learned response habit by administration of an unearned sample of the reward.


Originally named for the pigmented dopamine cells of zona compacta of the substantia nigra (SNc) and ventral tegmental area, the term now designates only the lateral portion of the dopamine cells: those that project to the caudate–putamen. The term has also been extended to include the group of non-pigmented (γ-aminobutyric acid-mediated) substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNr) cells that lies ventral to the SNc and that provides feedback to it.


In the rat the multiple bundles of the internal capsule give the caudate–putamen and the nucleus accumbens a striated appearance in sagittal section. For this reason they have come to be known as the dorsal and ventral striatum, respectively. The olfactory tubercle, beneath nucleus accumbens, has been recognized as an extension of the ventral striatum.

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Figure 1: Effect of dopamine receptor blockade on lever-pressing for brain stimulation reward.
Figure 2: Effect of dopamine receptor blockade on lever-pressing for food reward.
Figure 3: Effect of dopamine receptor blockade on lever-pressing for brain stimulation reward.
Figure 4: Effect of dopamine receptor blockade on free feeding.
Figure 5: Effect of dopamine receptor blockade during training on the strength of subsequent performance.