Alterations in dopaminergic and glutamatergic transmission in the induction and expression of behavioral sensitization: a critical review of preclinical studies

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2000 Aug;151(2-3):99-120. doi: 10.1007/s002130000493.


Rationale and objectives: Repeated exposure to many drugs of abuse results in a progressive and enduring enhancement in the motor stimulant effect elicited by a subsequent drug challenge. This phenomenon, termed behavioral sensitization, is thought to underlie certain aspects of drug addiction. Behavioral sensitization is the consequence of drug-induced neuroadaptive changes in a circuit involving dopaminergic and glutamatergic interconnections between the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex and amygdala.

Methods: The literature was critically reviewed in an effort to discern the relative roles of glutamate and dopamine transmission in the induction and expression of sensitization to amphetamine, cocaine and mu-opioids. In addition, the literature was reviewed to evaluate distinctions between these drugs in the involvement of the relevant brain nuclei listed above.

Results: The common substrates between sensitizing drugs are glutamate transmission, especially at the NMDA receptor, and an action in the ventral tegmental area. In contrast, a role for dopamine is only clearly seen in amphetamine sensitization and critical involvement of nuclei outside the ventral tegmental area is found for cocaine and morphine. While enhanced dopamine transmission is associated with sensitization by all three drugs, a role for glutamate is clearly identified only with cocaine sensitization. Accordingly, glutamatergic cortical and allocortical brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex appear more critical for cocaine sensitization.

Conclusions: The distinctions between drugs in the induction and expression of sensitization indicate that behavioral sensitization can arise from multiple neuroadaptations in multiple brain nuclei. This is not only the result of distinct molecular targets for the drugs, but may also include a differential involvement of learned associations. It is postulated that the relatively more robust pharmacological capacity of amphetamine to release dopamine may induce a form of sensitization that is more dependent on adaptations in mesoaccumbens dopamine transmission compared with cocaine and morphine sensitization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / drug effects
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Glutamic Acid / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Psychotropic Drugs / pharmacology
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Dopamine