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Protracted maturation of forebrain afferent connections of the ventral tegmental area in the rat

Yetnikoff, L;Reichard, RA;Schwartz, ZM;Parsely, KP;Zahm, DS;

The mesocorticolimbic dopamine system has long attracted the interest of researchers concerned with the unique gamut of behavioral and mental health vulnerabilities associated with adolescence. Accordingly, the development of the mesocorticolimbic system has been studied extensively, but almost exclusively with regard to dopaminergic output, particularly in the nucleus accumbens and medial prefrontal cortex. To the contrary, the ontogeny of inputs to the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the source of mesocorticolimbic dopamine, has been neglected. This is not a trivial oversight, as the activity of VTA neurons, which reflects their capacity to transmit information about salient events, is sensitively modulated by inputs. Here, we assessed the development of VTA afferent connections using the subunit of cholera toxin (Ct) as a retrograde axonal tracer in adolescent (postnatal day 39) and early adult (8-9-week-old) rats. After intra-VTA injections of Ct, adolescent and early adult animals exhibited qualitatively similar distributions of retrogradely labeled neurons in the sense that VTA-projecting neurons were present at all of the same rostrocaudal levels in all of the same structures in both age groups. However, quantitation of retrogradely labeled neurons revealed that adolescent brains, compared with early adult brains, had significantly fewer VTA-projecting neurons preferentially within an interconnected network of cortical and striatopallidal forebrain structures. These findings provide a novel perspective on the development of the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system and may have important implications for age-dependent specificity in the function of this system, particularly with regard to adolescent impulsivity and mental health vulnerabilities.