High Risk High Reward: Neuroscientists discover the key to motivational behaviours

15 August 2019

Researchers identify specialised neural circuits that control reward-seeking and punishment-avoiding behaviour

New research carried out by Dr Marcus Stephenson-Jones, a Group Leader at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, found that the decision to act in pursuit of a goal is determined by four classes of neurons in the ventral pallidum. The ventral pallidum is part of the basal ganglia, the group of structures in the brain where information about our surroundings is processed and turned into actions. The ventral pallidum is known to be important for reward seeking and punishment avoidance, but it is unclear exactly how this structure motivates behaviour both in pursuit of positive outcomes and against negative ones.

Building on previous work, a group of researchers at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory including Stephenson-Jones set out to study how these neurons function. They began by exposing mice to a sound they had been conditioned to associate with either a negative or a positive outcome. Through monitoring the mice’s brains, the researchers found that one type of neuronglutamatergic or negative valence neuronswere activated when mice predicted a negative outcome, whereas another typeGABAergic or positive valence neuronswere activated when the mice expected a positive outcome. Two further types of neurons were responsible for determining the salience of the stimulus. Together, these neurons assessed whether a stimulus was positive or negative, and how important it was. The outcome determined how the mice responded.

The Stephenson-Jones Lab at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre aims to understand how subcortical circuits transform information about the world into purposive action. Dr Stephenson-Jones said of the study, “the decision to approach or avoid can be a life or death decision for an animal. Our study identifies two circuits in the ventral pallidum that control this choice. Identifying the circuits that drive motivation will help the field identify what goes wrong when motivation is disrupted in conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety”.

In the case of addiction, users of addictive drugs experience rewards in part because of the substance’s effect on the ventral pallidum. Understanding how neurons translate information about rewards and punishments into actions could help to further expose the impact of drugs on the brain and potentially how to avoid negative outcomes.

This paper has not yet been peer reviewed. This work was supported by grants from NARSAD, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Human Frontier Science Program, the Stanley Family Foundation, Simons Foundation, Wodecroft Foundation, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Northwell Health Affiliation, and Feil Family Neuroscience Endowment.

The full paper is available here: Opposing contributions of GABAergic and glutamatergic ventral pallidal neurons to motivational behaviours

Hallie Detrick
Communications Manager, Sainsbury Wellcome Centre
+44 (0) 20 3108 8028