The Role of Dopamine in Locomotor Activity and Learning
The discovery that the brain contains neurons utilizing dopamine (DA) as their transmitter has led to studies of the behavioral function of these neurons. Changes in overall level of activity of DA neurons appear to produce parallel changes in locomotor activity. Additionally, DA neurons seem to mediate in part the effects of biologically significant (reinforcing) stimuli on learning. One way in which reinforcing stimuli produce learning is to increase the incentive motivational (response-eliciting) properties of neutral stimuli associated with them; also, reinforcing stimuli maintain the incentive motivational properties of previously conditioned incentive stimuli. Normal DA functioning appears to be required for the establishment and maintenance of incentive learning in naive animals. Previous incentive learning in trained animals can influence behavior for a time even when the function of DA neurons is disrupted; however, with continued testing in the absence of normal DA functioning, previously established conditioned incentive stimuli cease to influence behavior. From these observations and recent physiological, anatomical and biochemical studies of DA systems it is suggested that the biological substrate of DA-mediated incentive learning is a heterosynaptic facilitation of muscarinic cholinergic synapses. This model has important clinical implications since it has been suggested that DA hyperfunctioning underlies the development of schizophrenia.