Molecular mechanisms underlying striatal synaptic plasticity: relevance to chronic alcohol consumption and seeking

Eur J Neurosci. 2019 Mar;49(6):768-783. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13919. Epub 2018 Apr 20.


The striatum, the input structure of the basal ganglia, is a major site of learning and memory for goal-directed actions and habit formation. Spiny projection neurons of the striatum integrate cortical, thalamic, and nigral inputs to learn associations, with cortico-striatal synaptic plasticity as a learning mechanism. Signaling molecules implicated in synaptic plasticity are altered in alcohol withdrawal, which may contribute to overly strong learning and increased alcohol seeking and consumption. To understand how interactions among signaling molecules produce synaptic plasticity, we implemented a mechanistic model of signaling pathways activated by dopamine D1 receptors, acetylcholine receptors, and glutamate. We use our novel, computationally efficient simulator, NeuroRD, to simulate stochastic interactions both within and between dendritic spines. Dopamine release during theta burst and 20-Hz stimulation was extrapolated from fast-scan cyclic voltammetry data collected in mouse striatal slices. Our results show that the combined activity of several key plasticity molecules correctly predicts the occurrence of either LTP, LTD, or no plasticity for numerous experimental protocols. To investigate spatial interactions, we stimulate two spines, either adjacent or separated on a 20-μm dendritic segment. Our results show that molecules underlying LTP exhibit spatial specificity, whereas 2-arachidonoylglycerol exhibits a spatially diffuse elevation. We also implement changes in NMDA receptors, adenylyl cyclase, and G protein signaling that have been measured following chronic alcohol treatment. Simulations under these conditions suggest that the molecular changes can predict changes in synaptic plasticity, thereby accounting for some aspects of alcohol use disorder.

Keywords: basal ganglia; computational model; long-term depression; long-term potentiation; signaling pathways; striatum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / metabolism*
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Learning / physiology
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Receptors, Dopamine D1 / metabolism
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Receptors, Dopamine D1
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Dopamine