Two dimensions of value: Dopamine neurons represent reward but not aversiveness

An example of a single dimension is illustrated. Credit: Christopher D. Fiorillo, KAIST

To make decisions, we need to estimate the value of sensory stimuli and motor actions, their "goodness" and "badness." We can imagine that good and bad are two ends of a single continuum, or dimension, of value. This would be analogous to the single dimension of light intensity, which ranges from dark on one end to bright light on the other, with many shades of gray in between. Past models of behavior and learning have been based on a single continuum of value, and it has been proposed that a particular group of neurons (brain cells) that use dopamine as a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) represent the single dimension of value, signaling both good and bad.

The experiments reported here show that are sensitive to the value of reward but not punishment (like the aversiveness of a bitter taste). This demonstrates that reward and aversiveness are represented as two discrete dimensions (or categories) in the brain. "Reward" refers to the category of good things (food, water, sex, money, etc.), and "punishment" to the category of bad things (stimuli associated with harm to the body and that cause pain or other unpleasant sensations or emotions).

Rather than having one neurotransmitter (dopamine) to represent a single dimension of value, the present results imply the existence of four neurotransmitters to represent two dimensions of value. Dopamine signals evidence for reward ("gains") and some other neurotransmitter presumably signals evidence against reward ("losses"). Likewise, there should be a neurotransmitter for evidence of danger and another for evidence of safety. It is interesting that there are three other neurotransmitters that are analogous to dopamine in many respects (serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine), and it is possible that they could represent the other three value signals.

More information: "Two Dimensions of Value: Dopamine Neurons Represent Reward But Not Aversiveness," by C.D. Fiorillo et al Science, 2013.

Related Stories

Brain implant aims to stifle drug highs

Jul 29, 2013

What happens if addicts get no high from the drugs they take? Researchers at Case Western Reserve and Illinois State universities have received a $390,000 National Institute on Drug Abuse grant to help answer the question.

Dopamine regulates the motivation to act

Apr 29, 2013

The widespread belief that dopamine regulates pleasure could go down in history with the latest research results on the role of this neurotransmitter. Researchers have proved that it regulates motivation, causing individuals ...

Recommended for you

Steering the filaments of the developing brain

13 hours ago

During brain development, nerve fibers grow and extend to form brain circuits. This growth is guided by molecular cues (Fig. 1), but exactly how these cues guide axon extension has been unclear. Takuro Tojima ...

Do we really only use 10% of our brain?

13 hours ago

As the new film Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman is set to be released in the cinemas this week, I feel I should attempt to dispel the unfounded premise of the film – that we only use 10% of our brains ...

Birthday matters for wiring-up the brain's vision centers

Jul 31, 2014

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have evidence suggesting that neurons in the developing brains of mice are guided by a simple but elegant birth order rule that allows them to find ...

User comments