Associative learning mediates dynamic shifts in dopamine signaling in the nucleus accumbens.
The ability to predict favorable outcomes using environmental cues is an essential part of learned behavior. Dopamine neurons in the midbrain encode such stimulus-reward relationships in a manner consistent with contemporary learning models, but it is unclear how encoding this translates into actual dopamine release in target regions. Here, we sampled dopamine levels in the rat nucleus accumbens on a rapid (100 ms) timescale using electrochemical technology during a classical conditioning procedure. Early in conditioning, transient dopamine-release events signaled a primary reward, but not predictive cues. After repeated cue-reward pairings, dopamine signals shifted in time to predictive cue onset and were no longer observed at reward delivery. In the absence of stimulus-reward conditioning, there was no shift in the dopamine signal. Consistent with proposed roles in reward prediction and incentive salience, these results indicate that rapid dopamine release provides a reward signal that is dynamically modified by associative learning.