Networks of VTA neurons encode real-time information about uncertain numbers of actions executed to earn a reward


Multiple and unpredictable numbers of actions are often required to achieve a goal. In order to organize behavior and allocate effort so that optimal behavioral policies can be selected, it is necessary to continually monitor ongoing actions. Real-time processing of information related to actions and outcomes is typically assigned to the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, but also depends on midbrain regions, especially the ventral tegmental area (VTA). We were interested in how individual VTA neurons, as well as networks within the VTA, encode salient events when an unpredictable number of serial actions are required to obtain a reward. We recorded from ensembles of putative dopamine and non-dopamine neurons in the VTA as animals performed multiple cued trials in a recording session where, in each trial, serial actions were randomly rewarded. While averaging population activity did not reveal a response pattern, we observed that different neurons were selectively tuned to low, medium, or high numbered actions in a trial. This preferential tuning of putative dopamine and non-dopamine VTA neurons to different subsets of actions in a trial allowed information about binned action number to be decoded from the ensemble activity. At the network level, tuning curve similarity was positively associated with action-evoked noise correlations, suggesting that action number selectivity reflects functional connectivity within these networks. Analysis of phasic responses to cue and reward revealed that the requirement to execute multiple and uncertain numbers of actions weakens both cue-evoked responses and cue-reward response correlation. The functional connectivity and ensemble coding scheme that we observe here may allow VTA neurons to cooperatively provide a real-time account of ongoing behavior. These computations may be critical to cognitive and motivational functions that have long been associated with VTA dopamine neurons.

Publication Title

Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience