Dopamine cell firing can encode errors in reward prediction, providing a learning signal to guide future behavior. Yet dopamine is also a key modulator of motivation, invigorating current behavior. Existing theories propose that fast (phasic) dopamine fluctuations support learning, whereas much slower (tonic) dopamine changes are involved in motivation. We examined dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens across multiple time scales, using complementary microdialysis and voltammetric methods during adaptive decision-making. We found that minute-by-minute dopamine levels covaried with reward rate and motivational vigor. Second-by-second dopamine release encoded an estimate of temporally discounted future reward (a value function). Changing dopamine immediately altered willingness to work and reinforced preceding action choices by encoding temporal-difference reward prediction errors. Our results indicate that dopamine conveys a single, rapidly evolving decision variable, the available reward for investment of effort, which is employed for both learning and motivational functions.
Nature Neuroscience 19, 117-126 (2016)