DREADD-mediated modulation of locus coeruleus inputs to mPFC improves strategy set-shifting

Zackary A. Cope, Elena M. Vazey, Stan B. Floresco, Gary S. Aston Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Appropriate modification of behavior in response to our dynamic environment is essential for adaptation and survival. This adaptability allows organisms to maximize the utility of behavior-related energy expenditure. Modern theories of locus coeruleus (LC) function implicate a pivotal role for the noradrenergic nucleus in mediating switches between focused behavior during periods of high utility (exploit) versus disengagement of behavior and exploration of other, more rewarding opportunities. Two modes of activity in LC neurons have been characterized as elements in an Adaptive Gain Theory (AGT) of LC function. In this theory, during periods of accurate and focused behavior, LC neurons exhibit task-related phasic bursts. However, as behavioral utility wanes, phasic activity is suppressed and baseline (tonic) impulse activity increases to facilitate exploration. Our experiments sought to exogenously induce an elevated pattern of activity in LC neurons and their medial prefrontal cortical (mPFC) targets to test the tenets of the AGT. This theory posits that tonic activation immediately following a rule change should increase exploration and thereby improve performance on a set-shifting task. Indeed, DREADD mediated stimulation of LC terminals within mPFC decreased trials to reach criterion. However, this effect resulted from improved application of the new rule once the original rule is jettisoned rather than earlier disengagement from the old, ineffective strategy. Such improvements were not seen with global manipulation of LC, consistent with the view that LC-mediated exploration involves specific sub-circuits targeting mPFC. These findings extend our understanding of the role of LC in PFC and flexible behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
StatePublished - May 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Intracerebral
  • Locus coeruleus
  • Microinjection
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Set shifting


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