Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Mar 16. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.39.
Repeated exposure to amphetamine leads to both associative conditioning and nonassociative sensitization. Here we assessed the contribution of neuronal ensembles in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) to these behaviors. Animals exposed to amphetamine IP or in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) showed a sensitized locomotor response when challenged with amphetamine weeks later. Both exposure routes also increased ΔFosB levels in the NAcc. Further characterization of these ΔFosB+ neurons, however, revealed that amphetamine had no effect on dendritic spine density or size, indicating that these neurons do not undergo changes in dendritic spine morphology that accompany the expression of nonassociative sensitization. Additional experiments determined how neurons in the NAcc contribute to the expression of associative conditioning. A discrimination learning procedure was used to expose rats to IP or VTA amphetamine either Paired or Unpaired with an open field. As expected, compared with Controls, Paired rats administered IP amphetamine subsequently showed a conditioned locomotor response when challenged with saline in the open field, an effect accompanied by an increase in c-Fos+ neurons in the medial NAcc. Further characterization of these c-Fos+ cells revealed that Paired rats showed an increase in the density of dendritic spines and the frequency of medium-sized spines in the NAcc. In contrast, Paired rats previously exposed to VTA amphetamine showed neither conditioned locomotion nor conditioned c-Fos+ expression. Together, these results suggest a role for c-Fos+ neurons in the medial NAcc and rapid changes in the morphology of their dendritic spines in the expression of conditioning evoked by amphetamine-paired contextual stimuli.