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Neuron. 2000 Aug;27(2):349-57.

Long-term potentiation of excitatory inputs to brain reward areas by nicotine.

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Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care, University of Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA.


Nicotine reinforces smoking behavior by activating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the midbrain dopaminergic (DA) reward centers, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Although nicotine induces prolonged excitation of the VTA in vivo, the nAChRs on the DA neurons desensitize in seconds. Here, we show that activation of nAChRs on presynaptic terminals in the VTA enhances glutamatergic inputs to DA neurons. Under conditions where the released glutamate can activate NMDA receptors, long-term potentiation (LTP) of the excitatory inputs is induced. Both the short- and the long-term effects of nicotine required activation of presynaptic alpha7 subunit-containing nAChRs. These results can explain the long-term excitation of brain reward areas induced by a brief nicotine exposure. They also show that nicotine alters synaptic function through mechanisms that are linked to learning and memory.

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