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J Neurosci. 2012 Mar 14;32(11):3809-17. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3917-11.2012.

Lateral hypothalamic orexin/hypocretin neurons that project to ventral tegmental area are differentially activated with morphine preference.

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Department of Pharmacology, Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, DC 20059, USA.


Orexin (or hypocretin) is synthesized exclusively in dorsomedial, perifornical, and lateral hypothalamus (LH). These neurons are implicated in several functions, including reward processing. We examined the ventral tegmental area (VTA) as a possible site of orexin action for drug preference during protracted morphine abstinence, and studied functional topography of orexin projections to VTA. Male Sprague Dawley rats were used to investigate whether orexin cells that project to VTA exhibit Fos activation with morphine conditioned place preference (CPP), and whether these cells exhibit increased Fos with morphine CPP during protracted abstinence. Unilateral injections of a retrograde tracer (WGA-Au, 350-400 nl) were made into the VTA or a nonreward area, locus ceruleus, and morphine or placebo pellets were implanted for 14 d. Approximately 2 weeks after pellet removal (post dependence), CPP conditioning and testing were conducted. Triple labeling for WGA-Au, Fos, and orexin revealed that the percentage of VTA-projecting orexin neurons Fos activated on the CPP test day significantly increased in post-dependent (vs nondependent) rats, and was exclusive to LH orexin neurons (not dorsomedial or perifornical). Post-dependent animals showed a positive correlation between CPP scores and percentages of Fos-activated, caudal VTA-projecting LH orexin cells. Unlike afferents to caudal VTA, percentages of rostral VTA-projecting, LH orexin cells that were Fos activated showed a positive correlation with CPP only in nondependent animals. Fos in LC-projecting orexin cells was not correlated with CPP in any group. These results indicate that VTA is a heterogeneous and functionally significant target of orexin neurons for morphine reward during protracted abstinence.

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