Mesocorticolimbic adaptations in synaptic plasticity underlie the development of alcohol dependence
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Synaptic alterations in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) are crucial for the aberrant reward-associated learning that forms the foundation of drug dependence. Glutamatergic synaptic plasticity in the NAc has been implicated in several behavioral responses to psychomotor stimulating agents, such as cocaine and amphetamine, yet no studies, at present, have investigated its modulation by ethanol. We demonstrated that both in vitro and in vivo ethanol treatment significantly disrupts normal synaptic functioning in medium spiny neurons (MSNs) of the NAc shell. Utilizing whole-cell voltage clamp recording techniques, synaptic conditioning (low frequency stimulation with concurrent postsynaptic depolarization) reliably depressed (NAc-LTD) AMPA-mediated excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs). Acute ethanol exposure inhibited the depression of AMPA EPSCs differentially with increasing concentrations, but this inhibitory action of ethanol was reversed by a D1-like dopamine receptor agonist. When examined 24 hours following a single bout of in vivo chronic intermittent ethanol (CIE) vapor exposure, NAc-LTD was absent and instead synaptic potentiation (LTP) was reliably observed. We further investigated CIE-induced modulation of NAc-LTD by distinguishing between the two subpopulations of MSNs in the NAc, D1 receptor-expressing (D1+) and D2 receptor-expressing (D1-). We determined that NAc-LTD is expressed solely in D1+ but not D1- MSNs. In addition, 24 hours following a repeated regimen of in vivo CIE exposure NAc-LTD is completely occluded in D1+ MSNs, while D1- MSNs are able to express LTD. Complete recovery of normal synaptic plasticity expression in both D1+ and D1- MSNs does not occur until two weeks of withdrawal from CIE vapor exposure. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of a reversal in the cell type-specificity of synaptic plasticity in the NAc shell, as well as, the gradual recovery of the pre-drug exposure plasticity state following extended withdrawal. This study suggests that NAc-LTD is cell type-specific and highly sensitive to both acute and chronic ethanol exposure. We believe these observations also highlight the adaptability of NAc MSNs to the effects of long-term ethanol exposure. A change in these synaptic processes may constitute a neural adaptation that contributes to the induction and/or expression of alcohol dependence.