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Fos activation of selective afferents to ventral tegmental area during cue-induced reinstatement of cocaine seeking in rats

Mahler, SV;Aston-Jones, GS;

Ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine neurons are crucial for appetitive responses to Pavlovian cues, including cue-induced reinstatement of drug seeking. However, it is unknown which VTA inputs help activate these neurons, transducing stimuli into salient cues that drive drug-seeking behavior. Here we examined 56 VTA afferents from forebrain and midbrain that are Fos activated during cue-induced reinstatement. We injected the retrograde tracer cholera toxin subunit (CTb) unilaterally into rostral or caudal VTA of male rats. All animals were trained to self-administer cocaine, then extinguished of this behavior. On a final test day, animals were exposed to response-contingent cocaine-associated cues, extinction conditions, a non-cocaine-predictive CS-, or a novel environment, and brains were processed to visualize CTb and Fos immunoreactivity to identify VTA afferents activated in relation to behaviors. VTA-projecting neurons in subregions of medial accumbens shell, ventral pallidum, elements of extended amygdala, and lateral septum (but not prefrontal cortex) were activated specifically during cue-induced cocaine seeking, and some of these were also activated proportionately to the degree of cocaine seeking. Surprisingly, though efferents from the lateral hypothalamic orexin field were also Fos activated during reinstatement, these were largely non-orexinergic. Also, VTA afferents from the rostromedial tegmental nucleus and lateral habenula were specifically activated during extinction and CS- tests, when cocaine was not expected. These findings point to a select set of subcortical nuclei which provide reinstatement-related inputs to VTA, translating conditioned stimuli into cocaine-seeking behavior.