Nicotine + ethanol co-exposure results in additive and/or synergistic effects in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to nucleus accumbens (NAc) dopamine (DA) pathway, but the mechanisms supporting this are unclear. We tested the hypothesis that nAChRs containing α6 subunits (α6∗ nAChRs) are involved in the response to nicotine + ethanol co-exposure. Exposing VTA slices from C57BL/6 WT animals to drinking-relevant concentrations of ethanol causes a marked enhancement of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptor (AMPAR) function in VTA neurons. This effect was sensitive to α-conotoxin MII (an α6β2∗ nAChR antagonist), suggesting that α6∗ nAChR function is required. In mice expressing hypersensitive α6∗ nAChRs (α6L9S mice), we found that lower concentrations (relative to C57BL/6 WT) of ethanol were sufficient to enhance AMPAR function in VTA neurons. Exposure of live C57BL/6 WT mice to ethanol also produced AMPAR functional enhancement in VTA neurons, and studies in α6L9S mice strongly suggest a role for α6∗ nAChRs in this response. We then asked whether nicotine and ethanol cooperate to enhance VTA AMPAR function. We identified low concentrations of nicotine and ethanol that were capable of strongly enhancing VTA AMPAR function when co-applied to slices, but that did not enhance AMPAR function when applied alone. This effect was sensitive to both varenicline (an α4β2∗ and α6β2∗ nAChR partial agonist) and α-conotoxin MII. Finally, nicotine + ethanol co-exposure also enhanced AMPAR function in VTA neurons from α6L9S mice. Together, these data identify α6∗ nAChRs as important players in the response to nicotine + ethanol co-exposure in VTA neurons.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience