An insidious aspect of addiction is that afflicted individuals are at risk of relapse even after extended periods of abstinence. Stressful life events are important contributors to relapse in recovering cocaine addicts, but the mechanisms by which they influence motivational systems are poorly understood. Studies suggest that stress may "set the stage" for relapse by increasing the sensitivity of brain reward circuits to drug-associated stimuli. This proposal seeks to elucidate the mechanisms by which stress, through increases in glucocorticoid hormones, influences relapse vulnerability. We have previously shown that treatment of rodents with stress levels of glucocorticoids does not lead to reinstatement of drug-seeking behavior, but potentiates reinstatement in response to a dose of cocaine that, by itself, is not sufficient to trigger relapse. In parallel to its behavioral effect, corticosterone pretreatment also potentiates the effects of low-dose cocaine on extracellular dopamine concentration in the nucleus accumbens, suggesting that glucocorticoids may potentiate drug seeking by enhancing dopaminergic neurotransmission in this critical reward-processing brain region. We are examining the role of organic cation transporter 3, a high-capacity dopamine transporter that is acutely and directly inhibited by glucocorticoids, in mediating the effects of glucocorticoids on dopaminergic neurotransmission, cocaine relapse, and motivated behavior in rodents. Because of a lack of pharmacologically specific inhibitors for OCT3, we are using two different genetic approaches to test the hypothesis that corticosterone potentiates cocaine-induced dopaminergic neurotransmission and drug-seeking behavior by inhibiting OCT3-mediated clearance of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. In the first aim, we will determine the impact of corticosterone-induced inhibition of dopamine clearance in the nucleus accumbens on dopamine signaling and drug relapse by using in vivo microdialysis and fast-scan cyclic voltammetry to measure dopamine concentration and clearance in cocaine-seeking animals. In the second aim, we will determine the role of OCT3 in the behavioral and neurochemical effects of corticosterone by examining corticosterone effects on drug-seeking behavior and nucleus accumbens dopamine signaling in animals genetically modified to lack OCT3 expression either globally or specifically in the nucleus accumbens. In the third aim, we will test the hypothesis that corticosterone-induced decreases in dopamine clearance modulate reward sensitivity and natural reward processing. These findings will thoroughly characterize a novel mechanism by which stress hormones can rapidly regulate dopamine signaling and contribute to the impact of stress on drug intake and motivated behavior in general.
The unpredictable relapse of cocaine use that occurs even after extended periods of drug abstinence is the primary obstacle to the effective management of cocaine addiction. This project examines the neurobiological mechanisms that contribute to increases in relapse vulnerability in cocaine addicts during periods of stress. The project focuses on the regulation of dopamine levels in specific brain regions by a transport mechanism that is blocked by glucocorticoid stress hormones.