How does cocaine exploit cerebral plasticity and direct it to create compulsive drug-seeking behavior?

Prof. Ami Citri and research students Diptendu Mukherjee and Ben Gonzalespresnt their answer

The human brain is ever changing, constantly rewiring itself in response to new experiences, knowledge or information from the environment. Addictive drugs such as cocaine can hijack the genetic mechanisms responsible for this plasticity, creating dangerous, obsessive drug-seeking and consuming behaviors.

Cocaine-induced plasticity is difficult to apprehend, however, as brain regions or even cell populations can react differently to the compound. For instance, sub-regions in the striatum – the brain area that responds to rewards and helps to plan movement – show distinct responses during progressive exposure to cocaine. And while researchers know that the drug immediately changes how neurons switch certain genes on and off, it is still unclear how these genetic modifications later affect behavior.

Mukherjee, Gonzales et al. explored these questions at different scales, first focusing on how progressive cocaine exposure changed the way various gene programs were activated across the entire brain. This revealed that programs in the striatum were the most affected by the drug.

Examining this region more closely showed that cocaine switches on genes in specific ‘spiny projection’ neuron populations, depending on where these cells are located and the drug history of the mouse. Finally, Mukherjee, Gonzales et al. used genetically modified mice to piece together cocaine exposure, genetic changes and modifications in behavior. These experiments revealed that the drive to seek cocaine depended on activation of the Egr2 gene in populations of spiny projection neurons in a specific sub-region of the striatum. The gene, which codes for a protein that regulates how genes are switched on and off, was itself strongly activated by cocaine intake.

Cocaine addiction can have devastating consequences for individuals. Grasping how this drug alters the brain could pave the way for new treatments, while also providing information on the basic mechanisms underlying brain plasticity. 

Read the paper


Gene expression in the brain