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Hippocampal BDNF regulates a shift from flexible, goal‐directed to habit memory system function following cocaine abstinence


The transition from recreational drug use to addiction involves pathological learning processes that support a persistent shift from flexible, goal-directed to habit behavioral control. Here, we examined the molecular mechanisms supporting altered function in hippocampal (HPC) and dorsolateral striatum (DLS) memory systems following abstinence from repeated cocaine. After 3 weeks of cocaine abstinence (experimenter- or self-administered), we tested new behavioral learning in male rats using a dual-solution maze task, which provides an unbiased approach to assess HPC- versus DLS-dependent learning strategies. Dorsal hippocampus (dHPC) and DLS brain tissues were collected after memory testing to identify transcriptional adaptations associated with cocaine-induced shifts in behavioral learning. Our results demonstrate that following prolonged cocaine abstinence rats show a bias toward the use of an inflexible, habit memory system (DLS) in lieu of a more flexible, easily updated memory system involving the HPC. This memory system bias was associated with upregulation and downregulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene expression and transcriptionally permissive histone acetylation (acetylated histone H3, AcH3) in the DLS and dHPC, respectively. Using viral-mediated gene transfer, we overexpressed BDNF in the dHPC during cocaine abstinence and new maze learning. This manipulation restored HPC-dependent behavioral control. These findings provide a system-level understanding of altered plasticity and behavioral learning following cocaine abstinence and inform mechanisms mediating the organization of learning and memory more broadly.

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