Orexins (synonymous with hypocretins) are recently discovered neuropeptides made exclusively in hypothalamus. Behavioral, anatomical, and neurophysiological studies show that a subset of these cells, specifically those in lateral hypothalamus (LH), are involved in reward processing and addictive behaviors. Fos expression in LH orexin neurons varied in proportion to conditioned place preference (CPP) for morphine, cocaine, or food. This relationship occurred both in drug-naïve rats and in animals during protracted morphine withdrawal, when drug preference was elevated but food preference was decreased. Inputs to the LH orexin cell field from lateral septum and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis were Fos-activated during cocaine CPP in proportion to the preference expressed in each animal. This implies that these inputs may be involved in driving the conditioned responses in LH orexin neurons. Related studies showed that LH orexin neurons that project to ventral tegmental area (VTA) had greater Fos induction in association with elevated morphine preference during protracted withdrawal than non-VTA-projecting orexin neurons, indicating that the VTA is an important site of action for orexin's role in reward processing. In addition, stimulation of LH orexin neurons, or microinjection of orexin into VTA, reinstated an extinguished morphine preference. In self-administration studies, the orexin 1 receptor antagonist SB-334867 (SB) blocked cocaine-seeking induced by discrete or contextual cues previously associated with cocaine, but not by a priming injection of cocaine. There was no effect of SB on cocaine self-administration itself, indicating that it did not interfere with the drug's reinforcing properties. Neurophysiological studies revealed that locally applied orexin often augmented responses of VTA dopamine (DA) neurons to activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), consistent with the view that orexin facilitates activation of VTA DA neurons by stimulus-reward associations. This LH-to-VTA orexin pathway was found to be necessary for learning a morphine place preference. These findings are consistent with results showing that orexin facilitates glutamate-mediated responses, and is necessary for glutamate-dependent long-term potentiation in VTA DA neurons. We surmise from these studies that LH orexin neurons play an important role in reward processing and addiction and that LH orexin cells are an important input to VTA for behavioral effects associated with reward-paired stimuli.
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