Caenorhabditis elegans as a Model to Study the Molecular and Genetic Mechanisms of Drug Addiction

Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2016;137:229-52. doi: 10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.10.019. Epub 2015 Nov 24.


Drug addiction takes a massive toll on society. Novel animal models are needed to test new treatments and understand the basic mechanisms underlying addiction. Rodent models have identified the neurocircuitry involved in addictive behavior and indicate that rodents possess some of the same neurobiologic mechanisms that mediate addiction in humans. Recent studies indicate that addiction is mechanistically and phylogenetically ancient and many mechanisms that underlie human addiction are also present in invertebrates. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans has conserved neurobiologic systems with powerful molecular and genetic tools and a rapid rate of development that enables cost-effective translational discovery. Emerging evidence suggests that C. elegans is an excellent model to identify molecular mechanisms that mediate drug-induced behavior and potential targets for medications development for various addictive compounds. C. elegans emit many behaviors that can be easily quantitated including some that involve interactions with the environment. Ethanol (EtOH) is the best-studied drug-of-abuse in C. elegans and at least 50 different genes/targets have been identified as mediating EtOH's effects and polymorphisms in some orthologs in humans are associated with alcohol use disorders. C. elegans has also been shown to display dopamine and cholinergic system-dependent attraction to nicotine and demonstrate preference for cues previously associated with nicotine. Cocaine and methamphetamine have been found to produce dopamine-dependent reward-like behaviors in C. elegans. These behavioral tests in combination with genetic/molecular manipulations have led to the identification of dozens of target genes/systems in C. elegans that mediate drug effects. The one target/gene identified as essential for drug-induced behavioral responses across all drugs of abuse was the cat-2 gene coding for tyrosine hydroxylase, which is consistent with the role of dopamine neurotransmission in human addiction. Overall, C. elegans can be used to model aspects of drug addiction and identify systems and molecular mechanisms that mediate drug effects. The findings are surprisingly consistent with analogous findings in higher-level organisms. Further, model refinement is warranted to improve model validity and increase utility for medications development.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis elegans; addiction; behavior; cocaine; ethanol; genes; methamphetamine; model; nicotine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / genetics*