Cholinergic modulation of dopaminergic reward areas: upstream and downstream targets of nicotine addiction

Eur J Pharmacol. 2003 Nov 7;480(1-3):117-23. doi: 10.1016/j.ejphar.2003.08.099.


Nicotine reinforces smoking behaviour by activating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the midbrain dopaminergic reward centres. Upstream of the dopaminergic neurons nicotine induces long-term potentiation of the excitatory input to dopamine cells in the ventral tegmental area, and depresses inhibitory inputs. Both effects of nicotine were shown to last much longer than the nicotine exposure and together will activate the dopaminergic ventral tegmental area projection toward the nucleus accumbens. However, downstream of dopamine, effects of nicotine are also likely to occur. Cholinergic interneurons within the nucleus accumbens are important in the tonic control of the gamma-amino buteric acid (GABA) nucleus accumbens output neurons, which project back to the ventral tegmental area. The nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that mediate this control are likely to desensitise upon preexposure to the nicotine concentrations found in the blood of smokers. Thus, synaptic mechanisms both upstream and downstream of dopamine release are potentially important factors contributing to the etiology of nicotine addiction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cholinergic Fibers / drug effects
  • Cholinergic Fibers / metabolism*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Interneurons / metabolism
  • Nicotine / metabolism*
  • Nicotine / pharmacology
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism
  • Reward*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine
  • Dopamine