Context-specific sensitization of cocaine-induced locomotor activity and associated neuronal ensembles in rat nucleus accumbens

Eur J Neurosci. 2008 Jan;27(1):202-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2007.05984.x. Epub 2007 Dec 17.


Repeated cocaine administration to rats outside their home cage induces behavioral sensitization that is strongly modulated by the drug administration environment. We hypothesized that stimuli in the drug administration environment activate specific sets of striatal neurons, called neuronal ensembles, for further cocaine-enhanced activation, and that repeated activation of these neuronal ensembles underlies context-specific sensitization. In the present study, we repeatedly administered cocaine or saline to rats on alternate days in two distinct environments outside the home cage, one paired with cocaine and the other with saline. On test day, cocaine challenge injections in the cocaine-paired environment produced strongly enhanced levels of locomotor activity, while cocaine challenge injections in the saline-paired environment did not. The corresponding record of past neuronal activation in nucleus accumbens and caudate-putamen during repeated drug administration was assessed using FosB immunohistochemistry, while acute neuronal activation on test day was assessed using c-fos in situ hybridization. Although only 2% of striatal neurons were FosB labeled, 87% of these FosB-labeled neurons were co-labeled with c-fos when cocaine was injected in the cocaine-paired environment. The degree of co-labeling was significantly less following cocaine or saline challenge injections in the saline-paired environment. Furthermore, the total number of c-fos-labeled neurons was greater with either cocaine or saline challenge injections in the cocaine-paired environment than in the saline-paired environment. These findings demonstrate that the drug administration environment partly determines which striatal neuronal ensembles are activated, and to what extent, following context-specific sensitization to cocaine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Cocaine / administration & dosage*
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors / administration & dosage*
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Environment*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / drug effects
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / drug effects*
  • Neurons / drug effects*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / cytology*
  • Phosphopyruvate Hydratase / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors
  • Fosb protein, rat
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Phosphopyruvate Hydratase
  • Cocaine