Cocaine Self-Administration Experience Induces Pathological Phasic Accumbens Dopamine Signals and Abnormal Incentive Behaviors in Drug-Abstinent Rats (2016)

J Neurosci. 2016 Jan 6;36(1):235-50. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3468-15.2016.

Saddoris MP1, Wang X2, Sugam JA2, Carelli RM2.


Chronic exposure to drugs of abuse is linked to long-lasting alterations in the function of limbic system structures, including the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Although cocaine acts via dopaminergic mechanisms within the NAc, less is known about whether phasic dopamine (DA) signaling in the NAc is altered in animals with cocaine self-administration experience or if these animals learn and interact normally with stimuli in their environment. Here, separate groups of rats self-administered either intravenous cocaine or water to a receptacle (controls), followed by 30 d of enforced abstinence. Next, all rats learned an appetitive Pavlovian discrimination and voltammetric recordings of real-time DA release were taken in either the NAc core or shell of cocaine and control subjects. Cocaine experience differentially impaired DA signaling in the core and shell relative to controls. Although phasic DA signals in the shell were essentially abolished for all stimuli, in the core, DA did not distinguish between cues and was abnormally biased toward reward delivery. Further, cocaine rats were unable to learn higher-order associations and even altered simple conditioned approach behaviors, displaying enhanced preoccupation with cue-associated stimuli (sign-tracking; ST) but diminished time at the food cup awaiting reward delivery (goal-tracking). Critically, whereas control DA signaling correlated with ST behaviors, cocaine experience abolished this relationship. These findings show that cocaine has persistent, differential, and pathological effects on both DA signaling and DA-dependent behaviors and suggest that psychostimulant experience may remodel the very circuits that bias organisms toward repeated relapse.


Relapsing to drug abuse despite periods of abstinence and sincere attempts to quit is one of the most pernicious facets of addiction. Unfortunately, little is known about how the dopamine (DA) system functions after periods of drug abstinence, particularly its role in behavior in nondrug situations. Here, rats learned about food-paired stimuli after prolonged abstinence from cocaine self-administration. Using voltammetry, we found that real-time DA signals in cocaine-experienced rats were strikingly altered relative to controls. Further, cocaine-experienced animals found reward-predictive stimuli abnormally salient and spent more time interacting with cues. Therefore, cocaine induces neuroplastic changes in the DA system that biases animals toward salient stimuli (including reward-associated cues), putting addicts at increasing risk to relapse as addiction increases in severity.


Incentive salience; prediction error; sign tracking; ventral striatum; voltammetry