What does dopamine mean?


Dopamine is a critical modulator of both learning and motivation. This presents a problem: how can target cells know whether increased dopamine is a signal to learn or to move? It is often presumed that motivation involves slow (‘tonic’) dopamine changes, while fast (‘phasic’) dopamine fluctuations convey reward prediction errors for learning. Yet recent studies have shown that dopamine conveys motivational value and promotes movement even on subsecond timescales. Here I describe an alternative account of how dopamine regulates ongoing behavior. Dopamine release related to motivation is rapidly and locally sculpted by receptors on dopamine terminals, independently from dopamine cell firing. Target neurons abruptly switch between learning and performance modes, with striatal cholinergic interneurons providing one candidate switch mechanism. The behavioral impact of dopamine varies by subregion, but in each case dopamine provides a dynamic estimate of whether it is worth expending a limited internal resource, such as energy, attention, or time.

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Fig. 1: Dopamine: updating the past, invigorating the present.
Fig. 2: Fast dopamine fluctuations signal dynamically evolving reward expectations.


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I thank the many colleagues who provided insightful comments on earlier text drafts, including K. Berridge, P. Dayan, B. Knutson, J. Beeler, P. Redgrave, J. Lisman, and J. Goldberg. I regret that space limitations precluded discussion of many important prior studies. Essential support was provided by the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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Berke, J.D. What does dopamine mean?. Nat Neurosci 21, 787–793 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-018-0152-y

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