Biological substrates of reward and aversion: A nucleus accumbens activity hypothesis

William A. Carlezon, Mark J. Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

419 Scopus citations


The nucleus accumbens (NAc) is a critical element of the mesocorticolimbic system, a brain circuit implicated in reward and motivation. This basal forebrain structure receives dopamine (DA) input from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and glutamate (GLU) input from regions including the prefrontal cortex (PFC), amygdala (AMG), and hippocampus (HIP). As such, it integrates inputs from limbic and cortical regions, linking motivation with action. The NAc has a well-established role in mediating the rewarding effects of drugs of abuse and natural rewards such as food and sexual behavior. However, accumulating pharmacological, molecular, and electrophysiological evidence has raised the possibility that it also plays an important (and sometimes underappreciated) role in mediating aversive states. Here we review evidence that rewarding and aversive states are encoded in the activity of NAc medium spiny GABAergic neurons, which account for the vast majority of the neurons in this region. While admittedly simple, this working hypothesis is testable using combinations of available and emerging technologies, including electrophysiology, genetic engineering, and functional brain imaging. A deeper understanding of the basic neurobiology of mood states will facilitate the development of well-tolerated medications that treat and prevent addiction and other conditions (e.g., mood disorders) associated with dysregulation of brain motivation systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)122-132
Number of pages11
Issue numberSUPPL. 1
StatePublished - 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) grants DA012736 (to WAC) and DA019666 (to MJT) and a McKnight-Land Grant professorship (to MJT). We thank M.J. Kaufman, B. de Frederick, and S.S. Negus for permission to cite unpublished data from their brain imaging studies in monkeys.


  • Addiction
  • Behavior
  • Electrophysiology
  • Model
  • Molecular biology


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