Dopamine neuron ensembles signal the content of sensory prediction errors

Thomas A. Stalnaker*, James D. Howard, Yuji K. Takahashi, Samuel J. Gershman, Thorsten Kahnt, Geoffrey Schoenbaum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Dopamine neurons respond to errors in predicting value-neutral sensory information. These data, combined with causal evidence that dopamine transients support sensory-based associative learning, suggest that the dopamine system signals a multidimensional prediction error. Yet such complexity is not evident in the activity of individual neurons or population averages. How then do downstream areas know what to learn in response to these signals? One possibility is that information about content is contained in the pattern of firing across many dopamine neurons. Consistent with this, here we show that the pattern of firing across a small group of dopamine neurons recorded in rats signals the identity of a mis-predicted sensory event. Further, this same information is reflected in the BOLD response elicited by sensory prediction errors in human midbrain. These data provide evidence that ensembles of dopamine neurons provide highly specific teaching signals, opening new possibilities for how this system might contribute to learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere49315
StatePublished - Nov 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Neuroscience


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