Dopamine neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) signal the occurrence of a reward-predicting conditioned stimulus (CS) with a subsecond duration increase in post-CS firing rate. Important theories about reward-prediction error and reward expectancy have been informed by the substantial number of studies that have examined post-CS phasic VTA neuron activity. On the other hand, the role of VTA neurons in anticipation of a reward-predicting CS and analysis of prestimulus spike rate rarely has been studied. We recorded from the VTA in rats during the 3-choice reaction time task, which has a fixed-duration prestimulus period and a difficult-to-detect stimulus. Use of a stimulus that was difficult to detect led to behavioral errors, which allowed us to compare VTA activity between trials with correct and incorrect stimulus-guided choices. We found a sustained increase in firing rate of both putative dopamine and GABA neurons during the pre-CS period of correct and incorrect trials. The poststimulus phasic response, however, was absent on incorrect trials, suggesting that the stimulusevoked phasic response of dopamine neurons may relate to stimulus detection. The prestimulus activation of VTA neurons may modulate cortical systems that represent internal states of stimulus expectation and provide a mechanism for dopamine neurotransmission to influence preparatory attention to an expected stimulus.
- Prefrontal cortex
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