New research sheds light on how reward-induced behaviour in the brain may be controlled

A new study has shed light on how reward-associated behaviour can be controlled by different groups of neurons in the brain.

The research, conducted by an international team of researchers involving two academics from our Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour, PhD student Daniel Dautan and lecturer Dr Todor Gerdjikov, showed that distinct groups of neurons within the brain were able to influence reward-induced behaviour and locomotion in rat models.

Dr Todor Gerdjikov, lecturer in our University’s Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour, said: “The cholinergic system is one of the most complex neuromodulator systems in the brain, and is involved in brain disorders ranging from Parkinson's disease to drug addictions. A better understanding of this system may lead to new treatment approaches.”

Published in ‘Nature Neuroscience’, the study, which was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Mena-Segovia (Rutgers University), examined the properties of ‘cholinergic neurons’ (nerve cells which release a chemical known as ‘acetylcholine’) found in brain structures residing in part of the brain known as the brainstem.

Specifically the researchers explored how the cholinergic neurons influenced the function of another set of neurons, known as ‘dopaminergic neurons’ (nerve cells which release ‘dopamine’), which were located in a distinct part of the brain called the ‘ventral tegmental area (VTA)’.

The results suggest that cholinergic neurons from the different brainstem structures, notably the ‘pedunculopontine nucleus’ and ‘laterodorsal tegmental nucleus’, have seemingly contrasting effects on dopaminergic neuron activity.

Daniel Dautan, PhD researcher in our Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour added: “It has long been thought that cholinergic control of the dopaminergic system is homogeneous. However our data suggest that dopamine neurons received anatomically and functionally heterogeneous cholinergic inputs, and that these segregated inputs strongly contribute to the normal function of the midbrain dopaminergic system.”

The full paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, can be found here.