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Specialized and spatially organized coding of sensory, motor, and cognitive variables in midbrain dopamine neurons

By Ben Engelhard, Joel Finkelstein, Julia Cox, Weston Fleming, Hee Jae Jang, Sharon Ornelas, Sue Ann Koay, Stephan Thiberge, Nathaniel Daw, David W. Tank, Ilana B. Witten

Posted 29 Oct 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/456194 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1261-9)

There is increased appreciation that dopamine (DA) neurons in the midbrain respond not only to reward and reward-predicting cues but also to other variables such as distance to reward, movements and behavioral choices. Based on these findings, a major open question is how the responses to these diverse variables are organized across the population of DA neurons. In other words, do individual DA neurons multiplex multiple variables, or are subsets of neurons specialized in encoding specific behavioral variables? The reason that this fundamental question has been difficult to resolve is that recordings from large populations of individual DA neurons have not been performed in a behavioral task with sufficient complexity to examine these diverse variables simultaneously. To address this gap, we used 2-photon calcium imaging through an implanted lens to record activity of >300 midbrain DA neurons in the VTA during a complex decision-making task. As mice navigated in a virtual reality (VR) environment, DA neurons encoded an array of sensory, motor, and cognitive variables. These responses were functionally clustered, such that subpopulations of neurons transmitted information about a subset of behavioral variables, in addition to encoding reward. These functional clusters were spatially organized, such that neighboring neurons were more likely to be part of the same cluster. Taken together with the topography between DA neurons and their projections, this specialization and anatomical organization may aid downstream circuits in correctly interpreting the wide range of signals transmitted by DA neurons.

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