Behavior-related modulation of substantia nigra pars reticulata neurons in rats performing a conditioned reinforcement task

J. M. Gulley, A. E.K. Kosobud, G. V. Rebec

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Motor-control models of basal ganglia function have emphasized disinhibition through reduction of tonic, inhibitory output. Although these models have shed important light on basal ganglia operations, evidence emerging from electrophysiological studies of behaving primates suggests that disinhibition alone may not adequately explain the role of the basal ganglia in movement. To assess this role in the rat, the most frequently used subject in studies of basal ganglia function, we recorded neuronal activity in the primary output nucleus, the substantia nigra pars reticulata, during an operant task. After rats were trained to nosepoke into an illuminated hole for access to a 10% sucrose solution delivered through a spout, single- and multiple-unit activity was recorded during 60-120 nosepoke trials. Compared to the period 60 s before the start of the first trial in the task, 110 of 225 reticulata units increased firing >200% while 17 of 225 decreased to 40% of baseline. Of these 225 units, >60% responded coincident with specific task events such as nosepokes and spout licking. Most nosepoke-responsive units showed either excitation (>50%) or a combination of excitation and inhibition (>25%) rather than inhibition alone (>20%). Increases in firing were also common during approach and licking at the spout, with inhibitions alone comprising 30% of responses. In some units, there was evidence of reward-related responding, with changes occurring in anticipation of reward delivery or during the delivery of sucrose, but not the persistent licking that continued for several seconds after its offset. While 70% of units responded during both nosepokes and spout licking, changes in firing were typically unique depending on the motor behavior required (i.e. nosepoking vs. licking). Our results, which indicate a prominent role for increases in nigra reticulata activity during movement, add to growing evidence that although inhibitions may allow desired motor responses to emerge, excitations may help shape behavioral output by suppressing competing motor programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-349
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 10 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Behaving rats
  • Motor behavior
  • Movement-related neurons
  • Nosepoke
  • Operant behavior
  • Single-unit activity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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