Ventral tegmental area (VTA) glutamate neurons are important components of reward circuitry, but whether they are subject to cholinergic modulation is unknown. To study this, we used molecular, physiological, and photostimulation techniques to examine nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in VTA glutamate neurons. Cells in the medial VTA, where glutamate neurons are enriched, are responsive to acetylcholine (ACh) released from cholinergic axons. VTA VGLUT2+ neurons express mRNA and protein subunits known to comprise heteromeric nAChRs. Electrophysiology, coupled with two-photon microscopy and laser flash photolysis of photoactivatable nicotine, was used to demonstrate nAChR functional activity in the somatodendritic subcellular compartment of VTA VGLUT2+ neurons. Finally, optogenetic isolation of intrinsic VTA glutamatergic microcircuits along with gene-editing techniques demonstrated that nicotine potently modulates excitatory transmission within the VTA via heteromeric nAChRs. These results indicate that VTA glutamate neurons are modulated by cholinergic mechanisms and participate in the cascade of physiological responses to nicotine exposure.
Keywords: acetylcholine; cholinergic; dopamine; electrophysiology; glutamate; nicotine; nicotinic; optogenetics; receptor; synapse.
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