08 09, 2019 10 (1) 3591
Vol. 10, Issue 1, Medline Page 3591
Ventral midbrain stimulation induces perceptual learning and cortical plasticity in primates.
Practice improves perception and enhances neural representations of trained visual stimuli, a phenomenon known as visual perceptual learning (VPL). While attention to task-relevant stimuli plays an important role in such learning, Pavlovian stimulus-reinforcer associations are sufficient to drive VPL, even subconsciously. It has been proposed that reinforcement facilitates perceptual learning through the activation of neuromodulatory centers, but this has not been directly confirmed in primates. Here, we paired task-irrelevant visual stimuli with microstimulation of a dopaminergic center, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), in macaques. Pairing VTA microstimulation with a task-irrelevant visual stimulus increased fMRI activity and improved classification of fMRI activity patterns selectively for the microstimulation-paired stimulus. Moreover, pairing VTA microstimulation with a task-irrelevant visual stimulus improved the subject's capacity to discriminate that stimulus. This is the first causal demonstration of the role of neuromodulatory centers in VPL in primates.