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Phasic Mesolimbic Dopamine Signaling Encodes the Facilitation of Incentive Motivation Produced by Repeated Cocaine Exposure

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Drug addiction is marked by pathological drug seeking and intense drug craving, particularly in response to drug-related stimuli. Repeated psychostimulant administration is known to induce long-term alterations in mesolimbic dopamine (DA) signaling that are hypothesized to mediate this heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli. However, there is little direct evidence that drug-induced alteration in mesolimbic DA function underlies this hypersensitivity to motivational cues. In the current study, we tested this hypothesis using fast-scan cyclic voltammetry to monitor phasic DA signaling in the nucleus accumbens core of cocaine-pretreated (6 once-daily injections of 15 mg/kg, i.p.) and drug-naive rats during a test of cue-evoked incentive motivation for food-the Pavlovian-to-instrumental transfer task. We found that prior cocaine exposure augmented both reward seeking and DA release triggered by the presentation of a reward-paired cue. Furthermore, cue-evoked DA signaling positively correlated with cue-evoked food seeking and was found to be a statistical mediator of this behavioral effect of cocaine. Taken together, these findings provide support for the hypothesis that repeated cocaine exposure enhances cue-evoked incentive motivation through augmented phasic mesolimbic DA signaling. This work sheds new light on a fundamental neurobiological mechanism underlying motivated behavior and its role in the expression of compulsive reward seeking.

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