Mesolimbic dopaminergic neurons are thought to serve as a final common neural pathway for mediating reinforcement processes. However, several recent findings have challenged the view that mesolimbic dopamine has a crucial role in the maintenance of reinforcement processes, or the subjective rewarding actions of natural rewards and drugs of abuse. Instead, there is growing evidence that dopamine is involved in the formation of associations between salient contextual stimuli and internal rewarding or aversive events. This evidence suggests that dopaminergic-neuron activation aids the organism in learning to recognize stimuli associated with such events. Thus, mesolimbic dopaminergic neurons have an important function in the acquisition of behavior reinforced by natural reward and drug stimuli. Furthermore, long- lasting neuroadaptive changes in mesolimbic dopamine-mediated transmission that develop during chronic drug use might contribute to compulsive drug- seeking behavior and relapse.
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