A brain region called the ventral pallidum provides insight into reward-seeking behavior. Image credit: Alexey Krasavin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chasing thrills

A study in rats provides clues about the brain mechanisms that motivate reward-seeking behavior.

Sounds or other cues associated with receiving a reward can have a powerful effect on an individual’s behavior or emotions. For example, the sound of an ice cream truck might cause salivation and motivate an individual to stand in a long line. Cues may prompt specific actions necessary to receive a reward, for example, approaching the ice cream truck and paying to get an ice cream. This is called instrumental conditioning. Some cues predict reward delivery, without requiring a specific action. This is called Pavlovian conditioning. Pavlovian cues can still prompt actions, such as approaching the truck, even though the action is not required. But exactly what happens in the brain to generate these actions during the two types of learning, is unclear.

Learning more about these reward-driven brain mechanisms might help scientists to develop better treatments for people with addiction or other conditions that involve compulsive reward-seeking behavior. Currently, scientists do not know enough about how the brain triggers this kind of behavior or how these processes lead to relapse in individuals who have been abstinent. Basic studies on the brain mechanisms that trigger reward-seeking behavior are needed.

Now, Richard et al. show that a greater activity in neurons, or brain cells, in a part of the brain called the ventral pallidum predicts a faster response to a reward cue. In the experiments, some rats were trained to approach a certain location when they heard a particular sound in order to receive sugar water, a form of instrumental conditioning. Another group of rats underwent Pavlovian training and learned to expect sugar water every time they heard sound even if they did nothing. Both groups learned to approach the sugar water location when they heard the cue, despite the different training requirements.

Richard et al. measured the activity of neurons in the ventral pallidum when the rats in the two groups heard the reward-associated sound. The experiments showed that the amount of activity in the brain cells in this area predicted whether a rat would approach the sugar-water delivery area and how quickly they would approach the reward after hearing the cue. The predictions were most reliable for rats that had to do something to get the sugar water. When Richard et al. reduced the activity in these cells they found the rats took longer to approach the reward source, but only when this action was required to receive sugar water. The experiments show that the ventral pallidum may provide the motivation to undertake reward-seeking behavior.

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