Antagonism of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the medial habenula (MHb) or interpeduncular nucleus (IPN) triggers withdrawal-like behaviors in mice chronically exposed to nicotine, implying that nicotine dependence involves the sensitization of nicotinic signaling. Identification of receptor and/or neurophysiological mechanisms underlying this sensitization is important, as it could promote novel therapeutic strategies to reduce tobacco use. Using an approach involving photoactivatable nicotine, we previously demonstrated that chronic nicotine (cNIC) potently enhances nAChR function in dendrites of MHb neurons. However, whether cNIC modulates downstream components of the habenulo-interpeduncular (Hb-IP) circuit is unknown. In this study, cNIC-mediated changes to Hb-IP nAChR function were examined in mouse (male and female) brain slices using molecular, electrophysiological, and optical techniques. cNIC enhanced action potential firing and modified spike waveform characteristics in MHb neurons. Nicotine uncaging revealednAChRfunctional enhancement by cNIC on proximal axonal membranes. Similarly, nAChR-driven glutamate release fromMHb axons was enhanced by cNIC. In IPN, the target structure of MHb axons, neuronal morphology, and nAChR expression is complex, with stronger nAChR function in the rostral subnucleus [rostral IPN (IPR)]. As in MHb, cNIC induced strong upregulation of nAChR function in IPN neurons. This, coupled with cNIC-enhanced nicotine-stimulated glutamate release, was associated with stronger depolarization responses to brief (1 ms) nicotine uncaging adjacent to IPR neurons. Together, these results indicate that chronic exposure to nicotine dramatically alters nicotinic cholinergic signaling and cell excitability in Hb-IP circuits, a key pathway involved in nicotine dependence. Key words: 2-photon; acetylcholine; electrophysiology; glutamate; nicotine; nicotinic.
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