Nat Neurosci. 2024 Jan 11. doi: 10.1038/s41593-023-01547-6. Online ahead of print.
The nervous system uses fast- and slow-adapting sensory detectors in parallel to enable neuronal representations of external states and their temporal dynamics. It is unknown whether this dichotomy also applies to internal representations that have no direct correlation in the physical world. Here we find that two distinct dopamine (DA) neuron subtypes encode either a state or its rate-of-change. In mice performing a reward-seeking task, we found that the animal’s behavioral state and rate-of-change were encoded by the sustained activity of DA neurons in medial ventral tegmental area (VTA) DA neurons and transient activity in lateral VTA DA neurons, respectively. The neural activity patterns of VTA DA cell bodies matched DA release patterns within anatomically defined mesoaccumbal pathways. Based on these results, we propose a model in which the DA system uses two parallel lines for proportional-differential encoding of a state variable and its temporal dynamics.