by Catalina Valdés-Baizabal, Guillermo V. Carbajal, David Pérez-González, Manuel S. Malmierca
Dopamine guides behavior and learning through pleasure, according to classic understanding. Dopaminergic neurons are traditionally thought to signal positive or negative prediction errors (PEs) when reward expectations are, respectively, exceeded or not matched. These signed PEs are quite different from the unsigned PEs, which report surprise during sensory processing. But mounting theoretical accounts from the predictive processing framework postulate that dopamine, as a neuromodulator, could potentially regulate the postsynaptic gain of sensory neurons, thereby scaling unsigned PEs according to their expected precision or confidence. Despite ample modeling work, the physiological effects of dopamine on the processing of surprising sensory information are yet to be addressed experimentally. In this study, we tested how dopamine modulates midbrain processing of unexpected tones. We recorded extracellular responses from the rat inferior colliculus to oddball and cascade sequences, before, during, and after the microiontophoretic application of dopamine or eticlopride (a D2-like receptor antagonist). Results demonstrate that dopamine reduces the net neuronal responsiveness exclusively to unexpected sensory input without significantly altering the processing of expected input. We conclude that dopaminergic projections from the thalamic subparafascicular nucleus to the inferior colliculus could encode the expected precision of unsigned PEs, attenuating via D2-like receptors the postsynaptic gain of sensory inputs forwarded by the auditory midbrain neurons. This direct dopaminergic modulation of sensory PE signaling has profound implications for both the predictive coding framework and the understanding of dopamine function.