Cholinergic neurons in the medial habenula (MHb) modulate anxiety during nicotine withdrawal although the molecular neuroadaptation(s) within the MHb that induce affective behaviors during nicotine cessation is largely unknown. MHb cholinergic neurons are unique in that they robustly express neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), although their behavioral role as autoreceptors in these neurons has not been described. To test the hypothesis that nAChR signaling in MHb cholinergic neurons could modulate anxiety, we expressed novel "gain of function" nAChR subunits selectively in MHb cholinergic neurons of adult mice. Mice expressing these mutant nAChRs exhibited increased anxiety-like behavior that was alleviated by blockade with a nAChR antagonist. To test the hypothesis that anxiety induced by nicotine withdrawal may be mediated by increased MHb nicotinic receptor signaling, we infused nAChR subtype selective antagonists into the MHb of nicotine naïve and withdrawn mice. While antagonists had little effect on nicotine naïve mice, blocking α4β2 or α6β2, but not α3β4 nAChRs in the MHb alleviated anxiety in mice undergoing nicotine withdrawal. Consistent with behavioral results, there was increased functional expression of nAChRs containing the α6 subunit in MHb neurons that also expressed the α4 subunit. Together, these data indicate that MHb cholinergic neurons regulate nicotine withdrawal-induced anxiety via increased signaling through nicotinic receptors containing the α6 subunit and point toward nAChRs in MHb cholinergic neurons as molecular targets for smoking cessation therapeutics.
Keywords: Acetylcholine; Anxiety; Habenula; Nicotine; Withdrawal.
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