Toward isolating the role of dopamine in the acquisition of incentive salience attribution

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Stimulus-reward learning has been heavily linked to the reward-prediction error learning hypothesis and dopaminergic function. However, some evidence suggests dopaminergic function may not strictly underlie reward-prediction error learning, but may be specific to incentive salience attribution. Utilizing a Pavlovian conditioned approach procedure consisting of two stimuli that were equally reward-predictive (both undergoing reward-prediction error learning) but functionally distinct in regard to incentive salience (levers that elicited sign-tracking and tones that elicited goal-tracking), we tested the differential role of D1 and D2 dopamine receptors and nucleus accumbens dopamine in the acquisition of sign- and goal-tracking behavior and their associated conditioned reinforcing value within individuals. Overall, the results revealed that both D1 and D2 inhibition disrupted performance of sign- and goal-tracking. However, D1 inhibition specifically prevented the acquisition of sign-tracking to a lever, instead promoting goal-tracking and decreasing its conditioned reinforcing value, while neither D1 nor D2 signaling was required for goal-tracking in response to a tone. Likewise, nucleus accumbens dopaminergic lesions disrupted acquisition of sign-tracking to a lever, while leaving goal-tracking in response to a tone unaffected. Collectively, these results are the first evidence of an intraindividual dissociation of dopaminergic function in incentive salience attribution from reward-prediction error learning, indicating that incentive salience, reward-prediction error, and their associated dopaminergic signaling exist within individuals and are stimulus-specific. Thus, individual differences in incentive salience attribution may be reflective of a differential balance in dopaminergic function that may bias toward the attribution of incentive salience, relative to reward-prediction error learning only.

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