Background: Rats given extended access to cocaine develop several symptoms of addiction, including a gradual escalation of drug intake, whereas rats given limited access do not. We asked here whether extended access to cocaine also produces drug-induced sensitization, a form of neurobehavioral plasticity implicated in addiction.
Methods: Rats were given limited (1 hour/session) or extended access (6 hours/session) to self-administered cocaine. Following a period of abstinence, rats were selected at random for assessment of their psychomotor response to cocaine or drug-seeking during extinction or for anatomic studies.
Results: When re-exposed to cocaine, rats allowed extended drug access showed greater drug-seeking behavior and were hypersensitive (sensitized) to the psychomotor activating effects of cocaine compared with rats given limited access. Extended access to cocaine was also associated with a greater increase in the density of dendritic spines on neurons specifically in the core of the nucleus accumbens (and not in the shell or medial or orbital frontal cortex).
Conclusions: The transition from stable to escalated cocaine use, a hallmark of addiction, is associated with especially robust behavioral sensitization and synaptic reorganization in the core of the nucleus accumbens.