Original Investigation


, Volume 191, Issue 3, pp 599-607

First online:

Individual differences in the propensity to approach signals vs goals promote different adaptations in the dopamine system of rats

  • Shelly B. FlagelAffiliated withMolecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan Email author 
  • , Stanley J. WatsonAffiliated withMolecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan
  • , Terry E. RobinsonAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, The University of Michigan
  • , Huda AkilAffiliated withMolecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan

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The way an individual responds to cues associated with rewards may be a key determinant of vulnerability to compulsive behavioral disorders.


We studied individual differences in Pavlovian conditioned approach behavior and examined the expression of neurobiological markers associated with the dopaminergic system, the same neural system implicated in incentive motivational processes.


Pavlovian autoshaping procedures consisted of the brief presentation of an illuminated retractable lever (conditioned stimulus) followed by the response-independent delivery of a food pellet (unconditioned stimulus), which lead to a Pavlovian conditioned response. In situ hybridization was performed on brains obtained either following the first or last (fifth) day of training.


Two phenotypes emerged. Sign-trackers (ST) exhibited behavior that seemed to be largely controlled by the cue that signaled impending reward delivery; whereas goal-trackers (GT) preferentially approached the location where the reward was delivered. Following a single training session, ST showed greater expression of dopamine D1 receptor mRNA relative to GT. After 5 days of training, GT exhibited greater expression levels of tyrosine hydroxylase, dopamine transporter, and dopamine D2 receptor mRNA relative to ST.


These findings suggest that the development of approach behavior towards signals vs goal leads to distinct adaptations in the dopamine system. The sign-tracker vs goal-tracker phenotype may prove to be a valuable animal model to investigate individual differences in the way incentive salience is attributed to environmental stimuli, which may contribute to the development of addiction and other compulsive behavioral disorders.


Autoshaping Conditioned stimuli Dopamine Goal-tracking Incentive salience Motivation Pavlovian conditioning Sign-tracking