Dopamine released in the nucleus accumbens is thought to contribute to the decision to exert effort to seek reward. This hypothesis is supported by findings that performance of tasks requiring higher levels of effort is more susceptible to disruption by manipulations that reduce accumbens dopamine function than tasks that require less effort. However, performance of some low-effort cue-responding tasks is highly dependent on accumbens dopamine. To reconcile these disparate results, we made detailed behavioral observations of rats performing various operant tasks and determined how injection of dopamine receptor antagonists into the accumbens influenced specific aspects of the animals' behavior. Strikingly, once animals began a chain of operant responses, the antagonists did not affect the ability to continue the chain until reward delivery. Instead, when rats left the operandum, the antagonists severely impaired the ability to return. We show that this impairment is specific to situations in which the animal must determine a new set of approach actions on each approach occasion; this behavior is called "flexible approach." Both high-effort operant tasks and some low-effort cue-responding tasks require dopamine receptor activation in the accumbens because animals pause their responding and explore the chamber, and accumbens dopamine is required to terminate these pauses with flexible approach to the operandum. The flexible approach hypothesis provides a unified framework for understanding the contribution of the accumbens and its dopamine projection to reward-seeking behavior.
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