At what stage of neural processing does cocaine act to boost pursuit of rewards?

Giovanni Hernandez, Yannick André Breton, Kent Conover, Peter Shizgal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations

Abstract

Dopamine-containing neurons have been implicated in reward and decision making. One element of the supporting evidence is that cocaine, like other drugs that increase dopaminergic neurotransmission, powerfully potentiates reward seeking. We analyze this phenomenon from a novel perspective, introducing a new conceptual framework and new methodology for determining the stage(s) of neural processing at which drugs, lesions and physiological manipulations act to influence reward-seeking behavior. Cocaine strongly boosts the proclivity of rats to work for rewarding electrical brain stimulation. We show that the conventional conceptual framework and methods do not distinguish between three conflicting accounts of how the drug produces this effect: increased sensitivity of brain reward circuitry, increased gain, or decreased subjective reward costs. Sensitivity determines the stimulation strength required to produce a reward of a given intensity (a measure analogous to the KM of an enzyme) whereas gain determines the maximum intensity attainable (a measure analogous to the vmax of an enzyme-catalyzed reaction). To distinguish sensitivity changes from the other determinants, we measured and modeled reward seeking as a function of both stimulation strength and opportunity cost. The principal effect of cocaine was a two-fourfold increase in willingness to pay for the electrical reward, an effect consistent with increased gain or decreased subjective cost. This finding challenges the long-standing view that cocaine increases the sensitivity of brain reward circuitry. We discuss the implications of the results and the analytic approach for theories of how dopaminergic neurons and other diffuse modulatory brain systems contribute to reward pursuit, and we explore the implications of the conceptual framework for the study of natural rewards, drug reward, and mood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere15081
JournalPloS one
Volume5
Issue number11
DOIs
StatePublished - 2010

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