The hypocretins (Hcrts), also called orexins, are two neuropeptides secreted by a few thousand neurons restricted to the lateral hypothalamus. The Hcrt peptides bind to two receptors located in nuclei associated with diverse cognitive and physiological functions. Experimental evidence has demonstrated that the physiological roles of hypocretins extend far beyond its initial role in food consumption and has emerged as a key system in the fields of sleep disorders and drug addiction. Here, we discuss recent evidence demonstrating a key role of hypocretin in the motivation for reward seeking in general, and drug taking in particular, and we delineate a physiological framework for this peptidergic system in orchestrating the appropriate levels of alertness required for the elaboration and the execution of goal-oriented behaviors. We propose a general role for hypocretins in mediating arousal, especially when an organism must respond to unexpected stressors and environmental challenges, which serve to shape survival behaviors. We also discuss the limit of the current experimental paradigms to address the question of how a system normally involved in the regulation of vigilance states and hyperarousal may promote a pathological state that elicits compulsive craving and relapse to drug seeking.
Copyright 2009. Published by Elsevier B.V.