Jennifer L. Scribner, Eric A. Vance, David S. W. Protter, et al


Pair-bond formation depends vitally on neuromodulatory signaling within the nucleus accumbens, but the neuronal dynamics underlying this behavior remain unclear. Using 1-photon in vivo Ca2+ imaging in monogamous prairie voles, we found that pair bonding does not elicit differences in overall nucleus accumbens Ca2+ activity. Instead, we identified distinct ensembles of neurons in this region that are recruited during approach to either a partner or a novel vole. The partner-approach neuronal ensemble increased in size following bond formation, and differences in the size of approach ensembles for partner and novel voles predict bond strength. In contrast, neurons comprising departure ensembles do not change over time and are not correlated with bond strength, indicating that ensemble plasticity is specific to partner approach. Furthermore, the neurons comprising partner and novel-approach ensembles are nonoverlapping while departure ensembles are more overlapping than chance, which may reflect another key feature of approach ensembles. We posit that the features of the partner-approach ensemble and its expansion upon bond formation potentially make it a key neuronal substrate associated with bond formation and maturation.