Cocaine addiction is characterized by long-lasting vulnerability to relapse arising because neutral environmental stimuli become associated with drug use and then act as cues that induce relapse. It is not known how cues elicit cocaine seeking, and why cocaine seeking is more difficult to regulate than seeking a natural reward. We found that cocaine-associated cues initiate cocaine seeking by inducing a rapid, transient increase in dendritic spine size and synaptic strength in the nucleus accumbens. These changes required neural activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is not the case when identical cues were associated with obtaining sucrose, which did not elicit changes in spine size or synaptic strength. The marked cue-induced synaptic changes in the accumbens were correlated with the intensity of cocaine, but not sucrose seeking, and may explain the difficulty addicts experience in managing relapse to cocaine use.
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