Mesolimbic GluA1 AMPA Receptor Signaling in Dopaminergic Neurons Plays a Critical Role in the Induction of Cross-Sensitization to Psychostimulants in Response to Social Stress

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Intermittent social defeat stress induces psychostimulant cross-sensitization, as well as long-lasting social avoidance behavior. Previous data reveal heightened expression of AMPA receptor (AMPAR) GluA1 subunits in rat ventral tegmental area

Intermittent social defeat stress induces psychostimulant cross-sensitization, as well as long-lasting social avoidance behavior. Previous data reveal heightened expression of AMPA receptor (AMPAR) GluA1 subunits in rat ventral tegmental area (VTA), which occurs concurrently with social stress-induced amphetamine (AMPH) cross-sensitization. These studies described herein examined whether VTA GluA1 AMPARs are important for the behavioral consequences of social stress and investigated the role of the infralimbic (IL) to VTA pathway in the induction of these responses. Functional inactivation of GluA1 in VTA DA neurons prevented stress-induced AMPH sensitization without affecting social avoidance behavior, while GluA1 overexpression in VTA DA neurons mimicked the effects of stress on AMPH sensitization. Female rats were more sensitive to the effects of stress on AMPH administration than males, specifically during proestrus/estrus, which is characterized by higher circulating estradiol. Fluorescent immunohistochemistry revealed that females expressed higher GluA1 in VTA DA neurons as a result of intermittent social defeat stress, independent of estrus stage; by contrast, females during proestrus/estrus displayed higher tyrosine kinase receptor type 2 (TrkB) expression, which is the receptor for brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), in VTA DA neurons, independent of stress exposure. Functional inactivation of GluA1 in VTA DA neurons prevented stress-induced AMPH sensitization and overexpression mimicked the effects of stress on AMPH sensitization. This suggests that BDNF-TrkB signaling may work concomitantly with GluA1 signaling in the VTA to drive sex-dependent differences in stress-induced locomotor sensitization effects. Optogenetic inhibition of the IL-VTA pathway in male rats prevented stress-induced AMPH sensitization compared to control animals. In addition, fluorescent immunohistochemistry displayed less Fos labeling in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) of rats with IL-VTA light inhibition compared to control animals. This suggests that the IL-VTA pathway plays a critical role in the induction of stress-induced sensitivity to AMPH, and blocking this pathway prevents mesolimbic DA signaling to the NAc. We conclude that IL glutamate projections onto GluA1-homomeric AMPA receptors in VTA DA neurons play a critical role in driving the stress-induced sensitization response in males and females. Therefore, GluA1 VTA DA neurons could potentially be a therapeutic target to prevent stress-induced drug susceptibility in the future.