Many of the brain's reward systems converge on the nucleus accumbens, a region richly innervated by excitatory, inhibitory, and modulatory afferents representing the circuitry necessary for selecting adaptive motivated behaviors. The ventral subiculum of the hippocampus provides contextual and spatial information, the basolateral amygdala conveys affective influence, and the prefrontal cortex provides an integrative impact on goal-directed behavior. The balance of these afferents is under the modulatory influence of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area. This midbrain region receives its own complex mix of excitatory and inhibitory inputs, some of which have only recently been identified. Such afferent regulation positions the dopamine system to bias goal-directed behavior based on internal drives and environmental contingencies. Conditions that result in reward promote phasic dopamine release, which serves to maintain ongoing behavior by selectively potentiating ventral subicular drive to the accumbens. Behaviors that fail to produce an expected reward decrease dopamine transmission, which favors prefrontal cortical-driven switching to new behavioral strategies. As such, the limbic reward system is designed to optimize action plans for maximizing reward outcomes. This system can be commandeered by drugs of abuse or psychiatric disorders, resulting in inappropriate behaviors that sustain failed reward strategies. A fuller appreciation of the circuitry interconnecting the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area should serve to advance discovery of new treatment options for these conditions.
Keywords: accumbens, dopamine, prefrontal cortex, ventral tegmental area, glutamate, GABA