Endogenous cholinergic inputs and local circuit mechanisms govern the phasic mesolimbic dopamine response to nicotine

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(8):e1003183. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003183. Epub 2013 Aug 15.


Nicotine exerts its reinforcing action by stimulating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) and boosting dopamine (DA) output from the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Recent data have led to a debate about the principal pathway of nicotine action: direct stimulation of the DAergic cells through nAChR activation, or disinhibition mediated through desensitization of nAChRs on GABAergic interneurons. We use a computational model of the VTA circuitry and nAChR function to shed light on this issue. Our model illustrates that the α4β2-containing nAChRs either on DA or GABA cells can mediate the acute effects of nicotine. We account for in vitro as well as in vivo data, and predict the conditions necessary for either direct stimulation or disinhibition to be at the origin of DA activity increases. We propose key experiments to disentangle the contribution of both mechanisms. We show that the rate of endogenous acetylcholine input crucially determines the evoked DA response for both mechanisms. Together our results delineate the mechanisms by which the VTA mediates the acute rewarding properties of nicotine and suggest an acetylcholine dependence hypothesis for nicotine reinforcement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism
  • Acetylcholinesterase / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Computer Simulation
  • Dopamine
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nicotine / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / cytology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology


  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine
  • Acetylcholinesterase
  • Acetylcholine
  • Dopamine

Grant support

This work is supported by CNRS, Collège de France, EU consortium BACS FP6-IST-027140 (MG and BG), École des Neurosciences de Paris Île-de-France, Neuropôle de Recherche Francilien (MG), and the Marie Curie Team of Excellence Grant BIND MECT-CT-20095-024831 (BG). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.