Natural and drug rewards act on common neural plasticity mechanisms with ΔFosB as a key mediator

J Neurosci. 2013 Feb 20;33(8):3434-42. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013.


Drugs of abuse induce neuroplasticity in the natural reward pathway, specifically the nucleus accumbens (NAc), thereby causing development and expression of addictive behavior. Recent evidence suggests that natural rewards may cause similar changes in the NAc, suggesting that drugs may activate mechanisms of plasticity shared with natural rewards, and allowing for unique interplay between natural and drug rewards. In this study, we demonstrate that sexual experience in male rats when followed by short or prolonged periods of loss of sex reward causes enhanced amphetamine reward, indicated by sensitized conditioned place preference for low-dose (0.5 mg/kg) amphetamine. Moreover, the onset, but not the longer-term expression, of enhanced amphetamine reward was correlated with a transient increase in dendritic spines in the NAc. Next, a critical role for the transcription factor ΔFosB in sex experience-induced enhanced amphetamine reward and associated increases in dendritic spines on NAc neurons was established using viral vector gene transfer of the dominant-negative binding partner ΔJunD. Moreover, it was demonstrated that sexual experience-induced enhanced drug reward, ΔFosB, and spinogenesis are dependent on mating-induced dopamine D1 receptor activation in the NAc. Pharmacological blockade of D1 receptor, but not D2 receptor, in the NAc during sexual behavior attenuated ΔFosB induction and prevented increased spinogenesis and sensitized amphetamine reward. Together, these findings demonstrate that drugs of abuse and natural reward behaviors act on common molecular and cellular mechanisms of plasticity that control vulnerability to drug addiction, and that this increased vulnerability is mediated by ΔFosB and its downstream transcriptional targets.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amphetamine / administration & dosage*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology
  • Dendritic Spines / drug effects
  • Dendritic Spines / metabolism
  • Dopamine Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Dopamine / metabolism
  • Reward*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*


  • Dopamine Antagonists
  • Fosb protein, rat
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Receptors, Dopamine
  • Amphetamine