Dopamine neurons code subjective sensory experience and uncertainty of perceptual decisions
Victor de Lafuente and Ranulfo Romo
PNAS December 6, 2011 vol. 108 no. 49 19767-19771
Midbrain dopamine (DA) neurons respond to sensory stimuli associated with future rewards. When reward is delivered probabilistically, DA neurons reflect this uncertainty by increasing their firing rates in a period between the sensory cue and reward delivery time. Probability of reward, however, has been externally conveyed by visual cues, and it is not known whether DA neurons would signal uncertainty arising internally. Here we show that DA neurons code the uncertainty associated with a perceptual judgment about the presence or absence of a vibrotactile stimulus. We observed that uncertainty modulates the activity elicited by a go cue instructing monkey subjects to communicate their decisions. That is, the same go cue generates different DA responses depending on the uncertainty level of a judgment made a few seconds before the go instruction. Easily detected suprathreshold stimuli elicit small DA responses, indicating that future reward will not be a surprising event. In contrast, the absence of a sensory stimulus generates large DA responses associated with uncertainty: was the stimulus truly absent, or did a low-amplitude vibration go undetected? In addition, the responses of DA neurons to the stimulus itself increase with vibration amplitude, but only when monkeys correctly detect its presence. This finding suggests that DA activity is not related to actual intensity but rather to perceived intensity. Therefore, in addition to their well-known role in reward prediction, DA neurons code subjective sensory experience and uncertainty arising internally from perceptual decisions.