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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012 Jun;37(7):1559-71. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.339. Epub 2012 Feb 1.

Differential effects of cocaine on dopamine neuron firing in awake and anesthetized rats.

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Laboratory of Pharmacology and GIGA Neurosciences, University of Liège, Sart Tilman/Liège, Belgium.


Cocaine (benzoylmethylecgonine), a natural alkaloid, is a powerful psychostimulant and a highly addictive drug. Unfortunately, the relationships between its behavioral and electrophysiological effects are not clear. We investigated the effects of cocaine on the firing of midbrain dopaminergic (DA) neurons, both in anesthetized and awake rats, using pre-implanted multielectrode arrays and a recently developed telemetric recording system. In anesthetized animals, cocaine (10 mg/kg, intraperitoneally) produced a general decrease of the firing rate and bursting of DA neurons, sometimes preceded by a transient increase in both parameters, as previously reported by others. In awake rats, however, injection of cocaine led to a very different pattern of changes in firing. A decrease in firing rate and bursting was observed in only 14% of DA neurons. Most of the other DA neurons underwent increases in firing rate and bursting: these changes were correlated with locomotor activity in 52% of the neurons, but were uncorrelated in 29% of them. Drug concentration measurements indicated that the observed differences between the two conditions did not have a pharmacokinetic origin. Taken together, our results demonstrate that cocaine injection differentially affects the electrical activity of DA neurons in awake and anesthetized states. The observed increases in neuronal activity may in part reflect the cocaine-induced synaptic potentiation found ex vivo in these neurons. Our observations also show that electrophysiological recordings in awake animals can uncover drug effects, which are masked by general anesthesia.

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