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Welcome to 2 minute neuroscience, where I simplistically explain neuroscience topics
in 2 minutes or less.
In this installment I will discuss the ventral tegmental area.
The ventral tegmental area, or VTA, is found in the midbrain, situated next to the substantia
nigra.
Although the VTA contains several types of neurons, it is primarily characterized by
its large population of dopamine neurons.
It is one of the two major dopaminergic areas in the brain (the other being the substantia
nigra).
VTA dopamine neurons travel from the VTA to other areas of the brain in several major
pathways.
Two of the most prominent pathways are the mesocortical and the mesolimbic pathways.
The mesocortical pathway projects from the VTA to widespread areas of the cerebral cortex,
including the prefrontal, orbitofrontal, and cingulate cortices as well as sensory and
motor cortices.
The mesocortical projections are very diverse and the pathway is involved in a wide range
of functions including motivation, emotion, and executive functions.
The mesolimbic pathway projects from the VTA to several limbic structures.
The largest projection of this pathway is to the nucleus accumbens, but other projections
stretch to areas like the amygdala as well.
The mesolimbic pathway also has diverse functions, but it is most frequently associated with
the reward system, as dopamine signaling along the mesolimbic pathway is considered to be
important to the processing of rewarding experiences.
When someone uses an addictive drug, for example, dopamine neurons in the VTA are activated.
These neurons project to the nucleus accumbens via the mesolimbic pathway, and their activation
causes dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens to rise.
The effects of these increased dopamine levels are still not fully understood, but they may
be involved with encoding memories about rewarding experiences and attributing importance to
environmental stimuli that are associated with the reward.