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Neuroscience. 2009 May 5;160(2):264-74. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.02.025. Epub 2009 Feb 21.

Sensitizing regimens of (+/-)3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy) elicit enduring and differential structural alterations in the brain motive circuit of the rat.

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Department of Psychology, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, 400 East Second Street, Bloomsburg, PA 17815-1301, USA.


Repeated, intermittent exposure to the psychomotor stimulants amphetamine and cocaine induces a progressive and enduring augmentation of their locomotor-activating effects, known as behavioral sensitization, which is accompanied by similarly stable adaptations in the dendritic structure of cortico-striatal neurons. We examined whether repeated exposure to the increasingly abused amphetamine derivative 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA; ecstasy) also results in long-lasting behavioral and morphological changes in mesocortical (medial prefrontal cortex) and ventral striatal (nucleus accumbens) neurons. Rats received two daily injections of either 5.0 mg/kg (+/-)-MDMA or saline vehicle, approximately 6 h apart, for 3 consecutive days, followed by 4 drug-free days for a total of 3 weeks. Following a 4-week drug-free period, MDMA-pretreated rats displayed behavioral sensitization, as well as large increases in spine density and the number of multiple-headed spines on medium spiny neurons in core and shell subregions of nucleus accumbens. In medial prefrontal cortex, the prelimbic subregion showed increased spine density on distal dendrites of layer V pyramidal neurons, while the anterior cingulate subregion showed a change in the distribution of dendritic material instead. Collectively, our results show that long-lasting locomotor sensitization to MDMA is accompanied by reorganization of synaptic connectivity in limbic-cortico-striatal circuitry. The differential plasticity in cortical subregions, moreover, suggests that drug-induced structural changes are not homogeneous and may be specific to the circuitry underlying long-term changes in drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior.

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