Explicit rewards are commonly used to reinforce a behavior, a form of learning that engages the dopaminergic neuromodulatory system. In contrast, skill acquisition can display dramatic improvements from a social learning experience, even though the observer receives no explicit reward. Here, we test whether a dopaminergic signal contributes to social learning in naïve gerbils that are exposed to, and learn from, a skilled demonstrator performing an auditory discrimination task. Following five exposure sessions, naïve observer gerbils were allowed to practice the auditory task and their performance was assessed across days. We first tested the effect of an explicit food reward in the observer’s compartment that was yoked to the demonstrator’s performance during exposure sessions. Naïve observer gerbils with the yoked reward learned the discrimination task significantly faster, as compared to unrewarded observers. The effect of this explicit reward was abolished by administration of a D1/D5 dopamine receptor antagonist during the exposure sessions. Similarly, the D1/D5 antagonist reduced the rate of learning in unrewarded observers. To test whether a dopaminergic signal was sufficient to enhance social learning, we administered a D1/D5 receptor agonist during the exposure sessions in which no reward was present and found that the rate of learning occurred significantly faster. Finally, a quantitative analysis of vocalizations during the exposure sessions suggests one behavioral strategy that contributes to social learning. Together, these results are consistent with a dopamine-dependent reward signal during social learning.
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