Based on the evidence described above, our working hypothesis is that rewarding stimuli reduce the activity of NAc MSNs, whereas aversive treatments increase the activity of these neurons. According to this model (), NAc neurons tonically inhibit reward-related processes. Under normal circumstances, excitatory influences mediated by glutamate actions at AMPA and NMDA receptors or dopamine actions at D1-like receptors are balanced by inhibitory dopamine actions at D2-like receptors. Treatments that would be expected to reduce activity in the NAc—including cocaine (Peoples et al., 2007
), morphine (Olds et al., 1982
), NMDA antagonists (Carlezon et al., 1996
), L-type Ca2+ antagonists (Chartoff et al., 2006
), palatable food (Wheeler et al., 2008
) and expression of dominant-negative CREB (Dong et al., 2006
)—have reward-related effects because they reduce the inhibitory influence of the NAc on downstream reward pathways. In contrast, treatments that activate the NAc by amplifying glutamatergic inputs (e.g., elevated expression of GluR1; Todtenkopf et al., 2006
), altering ion channel function (e.g., elevated expression of CREB: Dong et al., 2006
), reducing inhibitory dopamine inputs to D2-like cells (e.g., κ-opioid receptor agonists), or blocking inhibitory μ- or δ–opioid receptors (West and Wise, 1988
; Weiss, 2004
) are perceived as aversive because they increase the inhibitory influence of the NAc on downstream reward pathways. Interestingly, stimuli such as drugs of abuse may induce homeostatic (or allostatic) neuroadapations that persist beyond the treatment and cause baseline shifts in mood. Such shifts may be useful in explaining co-morbidity of addiction and psychiatric illness (Kessler et al., 1997
): repeated exposure to drugs that reduce the activity of NAc neurons might induce compensatory neuroadaptations that render the system more excitable during abstinence (leading to conditions characterized by anhedonia or dysphoria), whereas repeated exposure to stimuli (e.g., stress) that activate the NAc might induce compensatory neuroadaptations that render the system more susceptible to the inhibitory actions of drugs of abuse, increasing their appeal. This working hypothesis is testable through a variety of increasingly sophisticated approaches.
Fig. 2 Schematic depicting a simple working hypothesis of how the nucleus accumbens (NAc) may regulate rewarding and aversive states. (a) NAc neurons tonically inhibit reward-related processes. Under normal circumstances, there is a balance between cortical (more ...)
A. Testing the hypothesis with electrophysiology
One caveat to the inhibition/reward hypothesis is that widespread and prolonged inhibition of NAc firing, as in inactivation or lesion studies, does not appear to produce rewarding effects (e.g. Yun et al., 2004b
). This raises the possibility that it is not inhibition of the NAc, per se, that encodes reward but rather the transitions
from normal basal firing rates to lower rates that occur when rewarding stimuli are present. Prolonged inhibition may degrade the dynamic information normally encoded in the transient depressions of NAc firing.
Electrophysiology-based tests of the predictions of this hypothesis fall into two basic categories. The first category involves manipulating an animal’s behavioral state to produce sustained changes in responsivity to rewarding stimuli followed by testing for electrophysiological correlates of this altered reward state. For example, the early withdrawal state from chronic exposure to psychostimulants is characterized by anhedonia and lack of responsiveness to natural rewarding stimuli. What would the inhibition/reward hypothesis predict about the electrophysiological status of NAc neurons during this state? The major prediction is that NAc neurons would exhibit decreases in the activity suppression normally produced by exposure to a rewarding stimulus (e.g. sucrose). To our knowledge, this has not yet been investigated. Possible mechanisms for such a decrease in inhibition, should it occur, might include overall increases in neuronal excitability produced by any combination of changes in intrinsic excitability (e.g. increased Na+ or Ca2+ currents, decreased K+ currents) or synaptic transmission (e.g. decreases in glutamatergic or increases in GABAergic transmission). On the other hand, the available data on NAc MSN excitability during early psychostimulant withdrawal suggest that it is actually decreased during this phase (Zhang et al., 1998
; Hu et al., 2004
; Dong et al., 2006
; Kourrich et al., 2007
). As noted above, it is possible that a prolonged depression in excitability may degrade reward-related information contained in transient firing inhibitions, perhaps by creating a “floor” effect and reducing the magnitude of these inhibitions. This possibility remains to be tested.
Considering the apparent link between NAc and ventral pallidum in reward encoding (see above), we would predict that any excitability changes produced by sustained modulation of an animal’s reward state might be particularly evident in striatopallidal/D2 neurons. Although studying the detailed physiological properties of these neurons has been difficult in the past, the recent development of a line of BAC transgenic mice that expresses GFP in these neurons (Gong et al., 2003
; Lobo et al., 2006
) has made it possible to visualize them in in vitro
slice preparations, greatly facilitating the potential for physiological characterization of D2 cells.
The second category of electrophysiology-based tests involves using genetic engineering (see below) to alter the functional expression of key components of the cellular machinery for excitability or excitability modulation in NAc neurons. In theory, this could enable modulation of the inhibitions or excitations associated with reward or aversion, respectively, in NAc neurons. With this in mind, perhaps the most useful target molecules would be those that participate in activity-dependent modulation of neuronal excitability, rather than in maintaining basal firing rates. These targets would likely provide a better opportunity to modulating stimuli responsiveness than more general targets (e.g. Na+ channel subunits), thus enabling the evaluation of the inhibition/reward hypothesis. For example, the firing frequency of active neurons can be controlled by various ionic conductances that produce spike after-hyperpolarizations (AHPs). By targeting NAc neurons with genetic (or possibly even pharmacologic) manipulation aimed at the channels that produce AHPs, it may be possible to decrease the magnitude of aversion-related excitatory responses in these neurons and thus to test whether this physiological change correlates with reduced behavioral indices of aversion.
B. Testing the hypothesis with behavioral pharmacology
One of the most obvious pharmacological tests would to determine if rats self-administer dopamine D2-like agonists directly into the NAc. Interestingly, previous work indicates that while rats self-administer combinations of D1-like and D2-like agonists into the NAc, they do not self-administer either drug component alone, at least at the doses tested (Ikemoto et al., 1997
). While on the surface this finding might appear to invalidate our working hypothesis, electrophysiological evidence suggests that co-activation of D1 and D2 receptors on NAc neurons can, under some conditions, cause a reduction in their membrane excitability that is not seen in response to either agonist alone (O’Donnell and Grace, 1996
). In addition, more work is needed to study the behavioral effects of intra-NAc microinfusions of GABA agonists; historically, this work has been hindered by poor solubility of benzodiazepines—which are known to be addictive (Griffiths and Ator, 1980
) despite their tendency to decrease dopamine function in the NAc (Wood, 1982
; Finlay et al., 1992
: Murai et al., 1994
)—and the relatively small number of researchers who use brain microinjection procedures together with models of reward. Still other ways of testing our hypothesis would be to study the effects of manipulations in brain areas downstream of D2 receptor-containing MSNs. Again, early evidence suggests reward is encoded by activation of the ventral pallidum, a presumed consequence of inhibition of the MSNs of the indirect pathway (Tindell et al., 2006
C. Testing the hypothesis with genetic engineering
The development of genetic engineering techniques that enable the direction of inducible or conditional mutations to specific brain areas will be an important tool with which to test our hypotheses. Mice with constitutive deletion of GluRA (an alternative nomenclature for GluR1) show many alterations in sensitivity to drugs of abuse (Vekovischeva et al., 2001
; Dong et al., 2004
; Mead et al., 2005
), some of which are consistent with our working hypothesis and some of which are not. The loss of GluR1 early in development could dramatically alter responsiveness to numerous types of stimuli, including drugs of abuse. In addition, these GluR1-mutant mice lack the protein throughout the brain, whereas the research reviewed here focuses on mechanisms that occur within NAc. These points are especially important because loss of GluR1 in other brain regions would be expected to have dramatic, and sometimes very different, effects on drug abuse-related behaviors. As just one example, we have shown that modulation of GluR1 function in the VTA exerts the opposite effect on drug responses compared to modulation of GluR1 in the NAbc (Carlezon et al., 1997
; Kelz et al., 1999
). The findings in GluR1-deficient mice are not inconsistent with the combined findings from the NAc and the VTA: constitutive GluR1 mutant mice are more sensitive to the stimulant effects of morphine (an effect that could be explained by the loss of GluR1 in the NAc), but they do not develop progressive increases in responsivity to morphine (an effect that could be explained by the loss of GluR1 in the VTA) testing occurs under conditions that promote sensitization and involve additional brain regions. Accordingly, one must be cautious in assigning spatial and temporal interpretations to data from constitutive knockout mice: the literature is becoming replete with examples of proteins that have dramatically different (and sometimes opposite) effects on behavior depending upon the brain regions under study (see Carlezon et al., 2005
Preliminary studies from mice with inducible expression of a dominant-negative form of CREB—a manipulation which reduces the excitability of NAc MSNs—are hypersensitive to the rewarding effects of cocaine while being insensitive to the aversive effects of a κ-opioid agonist (DiNieri et al., 2006
). Although these findings are consistent with our working hypothesis, further studies (e.g., electrophysiology) might help to characterize the physiological basis of these effects. Regardless, an increased capacity to spatially and temporally control the expression of genes that regulate the excitability of NAc MSNs will enable progressively more sophisticated tests of our working hypothesis.
D. Testing the hypothesis with brain imaging
Functional brain imaging has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the biological basis of rewarding and aversive mood states in animal models and, ultimately, people. Preliminary data from imaging studies involving alert non-human primates are providing early evidence in support of the working hypothesis described above. Intravenous administration of high doses of the κ-opioid agonist U69,593—which belongs to a class of drugs known to cause aversion in animals (Bals-Kubik et al., 1993
; Carlezon et al., 2006
) and dysphoria in humans (Pfeiffer et al., 1986
; Wadenberg, 2003
)—causes profound increases in blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) functional MRI responses in the NAc (: from M.J. Kaufman, B. deB. Fredrick, S. S. Negus, unpublished observations; used with permission). To the extent that BOLD signal responses reflect synaptic activity, the positive BOLD response induced by U69,593 in the NAc is consistent with increased activity of MSNs, perhaps due to decreased dopamine input (DiChiara and Imperato, 1988
; Carlezon et al., 2006
). In contrast, positive BOLD signal responses are conspicuously absent in the NAc after treatment with an equipotent dose of fentanyl, a highly addictive μ-opioid agonist. While these fentanyl data do not indicate inhibition of the NAc per se, absence of BOLD activity in this region is not inconsistent with our working hypothesis. Clearly, additional pharmacological and electrophysiological studies are needed to characterize the meaning of these BOLD signal changes. The development of higher magnetic field strength systems is beginning to enable cutting-edge functional imaging and spectroscopy in rats and mice, opening the door to a more detailed understanding of BOLD signals and underlying brain function.
Fig. 3 Intravenous infusions of the μ-opioid agonist fentanyl and the κ-opioid agonist U69,593 induce overlapping but anatomically selective blood oxygen level dependent functional MRI (BOLD fMRI) responses in alert male cynomolgus monkeys (N=3). (more ...)