Burst timing-dependent plasticity of NMDA receptor-mediated transmission in midbrain dopamine neurons : a putative cellular substrate for reward learning



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The neurotransmitter dopamine (DA) represents a neural substrate for positive motivation as its spatiotemporal distribution across the brain is responsible for goaldirected behavior and learning reward associations. The critical determinant of DA release throughout the brain is the firing pattern of DA-producing neurons. Synchronized bursts of spikes can be triggered by sensory stimuli in these neurons, evoking phasic release of DA in target brain areas to drive reward-based reinforcement learning and behavior. These bursts are generated by NMDA-type glutamate receptors (NMDARs). This dissertation reports a novel form of long-term potentiation (LTP) of NMDARmediated excitatory transmission at DA neurons as a putative cellular substrate for changes in DA neuron firing during reward learning. Patch-clamp electrophysiological recording from DA neurons in acute brain slices from young adult rats demonstrated that synaptic NMDARs exhibit LTP in an associative manner, requiring coordinated pre- and postsynaptic burst firing. Ca2+ signals produced by postsynaptic burst firing needed to be amplified by preceding metabotropic neurotransmitter inputs to effectively drive plasticity. Activation of NMDARs themselves was also necessary. These two coincidence detectors governed the timingdependence of NMDAR plasticity in a manner analogous to the timing rule for cuereward learning paradigms in behaving animals. Further mechanistic study revealed that PKA, but not PKC, activity gated LTP induction by regulating the magnitude of Ca2+ signal amplification via the inositol 1,4,5-triphospate (IP3) receptor and release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores. Plasticity of NMDARs was input specific and appeared to be expressed postsynaptically, but was not associated with a change in NMDAR subunit stoichiometry. LTP of NDMARs was DA-independent, and was specific for NMDARs: the same induction protocol produced long-term depression of AMPA receptors. NMDARs that had undergone LTP could be depotentiated in a spike-conditional manner, consistent with active unlearning. Finally, repeated, in vivo amphetamine experience dramatically increased facilitation of spike-evoked Ca2+ signals, which in turn drove enhanced plasticity. NMDAR plasticity thus represents a potential neural substrate for conditioned DA neuron burst responses to environmental stimuli acquired during reward-based learning as well a novel therapeutic target for intervention-based therapy of addictive disorders.