Nicotine stimulates brain reward circuitries, most prominently the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system, and this action plays a critical in establishing and maintaining the tobacco smoking habit. Compounds that attenuate nicotine reward are considered promising therapeutic candidates for tobacco dependence, but many of these agents have other actions that limit their potential utility. Nicotine is also highly noxious, particularly at higher doses, and aversive reactions to nicotine after initial exposure can decrease the likelihood of developing a tobacco habit in many first time smokers. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about the mechanisms of nicotine aversion. The purpose of this review is to present recent new insights into the neurobiological mechanisms that regulate avoidance of nicotine. First, the role of the mesocorticolimbic system, so often associated with nicotine reward, in regulating nicotine aversion is highlighted. Second, genetic variation that modifies noxious responses to nicotine and thereby influences vulnerability to tobacco dependence, in particular variation in the CHRNA5-CHRNA3-CHRNB4 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) subunit gene cluster, will be discussed. Third, the role of the habenular complex in nicotine aversion, primarily medial habenular projections to the interpeduncular nucleus (IPN) but also lateral habenular projections to rostromedial tegmental nucleus (RMTg) and ventral tegmental area (VTA) are reviewed. Forth, brain circuits that are enriched in nAChRs, but whose role in nicotine avoidance has not yet been assessed, will be identified. Finally, the feasibility of developing novel therapeutic agents for tobacco dependence that act not by blocking nicotine reward but by enhancing nicotine avoidance will be considered. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled 'NIDA 40th Anniversary Issue'.
Keywords: Aversion; Dopamine; Drug discovery; Habenula; Interpeduncular nucleus; Nicotine; Reward; Rostromedial tegmental nucleus; Tobacco.
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