A year of neuroscience in Nature

Something light for the weekend: deconstruction of a year of neuroscience in Nature. This text cloud was created from the titles and abstracts of 83 neuroscience papers published in Nature in 2011. Click on the image to see a larger version. Frequency is represented by font size and common words such as “the” and “and” are excluded. Not too surprisingly, “neurons” came out on top (149 occurrences).

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Light dissection of reward

Image courtesy of Jeremiah Cohen

Out online in Nature today: a paper from Naoshige Uchida and colleagues about cell-type specific reward and punishment signals in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of mice. The VTA is a midbrain region heavily implicated in reward and addiction, and its outputs are thought to provide reward-related signals to other brain areas. One subpopulation of cells with the VTA, the dopaminergic neurons, have been the topic of intense study for their potential computational role in reward learning. Over a decade ago Wolfram Schultz and colleagues found that in monkeys, dopaminergic neurons fired for unexpected rewards, but were also suppressed if expected rewards were not received. Schultz and colleagues proposed that the neurons were representing the difference between expected and actual outcome, and also noted that such reward prediction error has been theoretically posited to drive reinforcement learning. Although reward prediction is by no means the only proposed role for dopamine, the idea that dopaminergic neurons carry reward signals has figured prominently into theories of VTA function and what goes wrong in disease.

But only around half of VTA neurons are dopaminergic; GABAergic neurons, which make inhibitory projections onto dopaminergic neurons, make up a big chunk of the remainder.  In the current paper, Uchida and colleagues asked how the two populations encode learned rewards and punishments. They recorded from VTA neurons in mice learning to associate odors with rewards and punishments and sorted the neurons post-hoc by their firing properties. Some neurons had brief phasic responses to rewards and reward-predicting cues. Others had sustained increases in firing during the delay between cues and rewards, and yet others sustained decreases. The authors then used optogenetic stimulation to establish dopaminergic or GABAergic identity in a subset of the cells. Dopaminergic neurons all belonged to the first class of cells with phasic reward and reward-predicting responses, and GABAergic neurons the second class with tonic increases. Most but not all dopaminergic neurons were inhibited by aversive stimuli,  most GABAergic neurons were excited. Read more