Simon N. Jacob, Torben Ott, and Andreas Nieder
J. Neurosci. 2013;33 13724-13734
The lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), a hub of higher-level cognitive processing, is strongly modulated by midbrain dopamine (DA) neurons. The cellular mechanisms have been comprehensively studied in the context of short-term memory, but little is known about how DA regulates sensory inputs to PFC that precede and give rise to such memory activity. By preparing recipient cortical circuits for incoming signals, DA could be a powerful determinant of downstream cognitive processing. Here, we tested the hypothesis that prefrontal DA regulates the representation of sensory signals that are required for perceptual decisions. In rhesus monkeys trained to report the presence or absence of visual stimuli at varying levels of contrast, we simultaneously recorded extracellular single-unit activity and applied DA to the immediate vicinity of the neurons by micro-iontophoresis. We found that DA modulation of prefrontal neurons is not uniform but tailored to specialized neuronal classes. In one population of neurons, DA suppressed activity with high temporal precision but preserved signal/noise ratio. Neurons in this group had short visual response latencies and comprised all recorded narrow-spiking, putative interneurons. In a distinct population, DA increased excitability and enhanced signal/noise ratio by reducing response variability. These neurons had longer visual response latencies and were composed exclusively of broad-spiking, putative pyramidal neurons. By gating sensory inputs to PFC and subsequently strengthening the representation of sensory signals, DA might play an important role in shaping how the PFC initiates appropriate behavior in response to changes in the sensory environment.