Chronic alcohol consumption shifts learning strategies and synaptic plasticity from hippocampus to striatum-dependent pathways

Front Psychiatry. 2023 May 26:14:1129030. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2023.1129030. eCollection 2023.


Introduction: The hippocampus and striatum have dissociable roles in memory and are necessary for spatial and procedural/cued learning, respectively. Emotionally charged, stressful events promote the use of striatal- over hippocampus-dependent learning through the activation of the amygdala. An emerging hypothesis suggests that chronic consumption of addictive drugs similarly disrupt spatial/declarative memory while facilitating striatum-dependent associative learning. This cognitive imbalance could contribute to maintain addictive behaviors and increase the risk of relapse.

Methods: We first examined, in C57BL/6 J male mice, whether chronic alcohol consumption (CAC) and alcohol withdrawal (AW) might modulate the respective use of spatial vs. single cue-based learning strategies, using a competition protocol in the Barnes maze task. We then performed in vivo electrophysiological studies in freely moving mice to assess learning-induced synaptic plasticity in both the basolateral amygdala (BLA) to dorsal hippocampus (dCA1) and BLA to dorsolateral striatum (DLS) pathways.

Results: We found that both CAC and early AW promote the use of cue-dependent learning strategies, and potentiate plasticity in the BLA → DLS pathway while reducing the use of spatial memory and depressing BLA → dCA1 neurotransmission.

Discussion: These results support the view that CAC disrupt normal hippocampo-striatal interactions, and suggest that targeting this cognitive imbalance through spatial/declarative task training could be of great help to maintain protracted abstinence in alcoholic patients.

Keywords: addiction; alcohol; amygdala; dorsal striatum; hippocampus (CA1); learning strategies; memory systems; synaptic plasticity.