The ventral tegmental area, anatomy and function

Sherman Hoover
The ventral tegmental area, anatomy and function

The ventral tegmental area (ATV and in English VTA) is a brain region composed of neurons found in the midbrain and that has a very important role in the brain's reward system, due to the large number of dopaminergic neurons that it possesses and that they connect with other parts of the brain. Today we will talk about this area of ​​the brain that is essential for us to feel reinforcement, pleasure or emotions.


  • Anatomy of the ventral tegmental area
  • Functions of the ventral tegmental area
  • Problems in the ventral tegmental area
    • References

Anatomy of the ventral tegmental area

The ventral tegmental area is a set of neurons found in the midbrain and is the headquarters of the body for dopaminergic neurons of the mesolimbic and mesocortical system.

Our brain has two very important dopaminergic areas: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area, which are located adjacent to each other. However, while the substantia nigra projects its dopaminergic neurons to locations such as the striatum and is commonly associated with movement, the ventral tegmental area is directed primarily toward the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens.

The ventral tegmental area has four primary nuclei: the paranigral nuclei and the parabrachial pigmented area, which contain many dopaminergic neurons, and the retroflexed parafascicular area and ventral tegmental tail. In addition to dopaminergic neurons, they also have GABAergic neurons that project to regions such as the prefrontal cortex or the nucleus accumbens, compensating for the activity of dopaminergic neurons..

Functions of the ventral tegmental area

Dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area are essential for feeling excitement, reinforcement, and motivation, as well as learning and many other cognitive functions. The dopamine cells found in this area release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that allows us to experience reinforcement or pleasure and that is associated with cognitive and emotional processes such as motivation, cognition, emotions such as love, reinforcement, and addictions..

When neurons in the ventral tegmental area emit an excitation signal before an event, the nucleus accumbens that is connected to this area releases dopamine, achieving the sensation of pleasure or reinforcement. In turn, this information reaches the prefrontal cortex, which functions as a kind of director when it comes to processing information through higher cognitive functions. This in turn projects information back to the ventral tegmental area, completing an essential reinforcement circuit to understand the behavior and emotional and cognitive processes of human beings..

Problems in the ventral tegmental area

The ventral tegmental area plays an essential role in the reward system that we have talked about and its projections to other parts of the brain are so many that it seems that this region may be involved in different disorders. A malfunction of this region or a problem derived from the dopamine levels in which it is involved, can cause serious problems for health and human behavior.

One disorder that appears to be related to the ventral tegmental area and the reward system in general is schizophrenia, a disease that appears to be influenced by high dopamine levels. It also seems to play a role in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is related to low levels of dopamine in the ventral tegmental area or Parkinson's disease, which leads to a deficit of this neurotransmitter in the nervous system, for which they are usually use dopamine agonists that achieve better control of the symptoms of the disease.

In addition, the ventral tegmental area next to the nucleus accumbens are the key places in the drug addiction process. From nicotine, cocaine, heroin or alcohol, these and other addictive substances alter dopamine levels by raising the excitation of neurons in the ventral tegmental area or by increasing the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.

Impulsive behavior, very common in adolescents, is also related to the brain's reward systems, especially the ventral tegmental area. A recent study carried out by the University of Pittsburgh shows that this impulsive adolescent behavior is not related to a higher level of dopamine, as has always been claimed.

Moghaddam, the author of the experiment, showed how the neuronal activity of the ventral tegmental area of ​​adolescents did not release dopamine when there were stimuli that anticipated pleasure, which is what happens in adults. This may be an explanation of why they make decisions more compulsively, since they seek to carry out an action that produces the pleasure that they do not get in the absence of anticipation. This and many other findings are making us understand more and better human behavior and its relationship with the brain.


  • Bradford, H.F. (1988). Fundamentals of neurochemistry. Barcelona: Labor.
  • Carlson, N.R. (1999). Physiology of behavior. Barcelona: Ariel Psychology.
  • Carpenter, M.B. (1994). Neuroanatomy. Fundamentals. Buenos Aires: Editorial Panamericana.

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