Curr Biol. 2023 Jul 18:S0960-9822(23)00872-2. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.06.086. Online ahead of print.
Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) interneurons in sensory cortex modulate sensory responses based on global exploratory behavior and arousal state, but their function during non-exploratory, goal-directed behavior is not well understood. In particular, whether VIP cells are activated by sensory cues, reward-seeking actions, or directly by reinforcement is unclear. We trained mice on a Go/NoGo whisker touch detection task that included a delay period and other features designed to separate sensory-evoked, action-related, and reward-related neural activity. Mice had to lick in response to a whisker stimulus to receive a variable-sized reward. Using two-photon calcium imaging, we measured ΔF/F responses of L2/3 VIP neurons in whisker somatosensory cortex (S1) during behavior. In both expert and novice mice, VIP cells were strongly activated by whisker stimuli and goal-directed actions (licking), but not by reinforcement. VIP cells showed somatotopic whisker tuning that was spatially organized relative to anatomical columns in S1, unlike lick-related signals which were spatially widespread. In expert mice, lick-related VIP responses were suppressed, not enhanced, when a reward was delivered, and the amount of suppression increased with reward size. This reward-related suppression was not seen in novice mice, where reward delivery was not yoked to licking. These results indicate that besides arousal and global state variables, VIP cells are activated by local sensory features and goal-directed actions, but not directly by reinforcement. Instead, our results are consistent with a role for VIP cells in encoding the expectation of reward associated with motor actions.