Feeding, drug abuse, and the sensitization of reward by metabolic need

Neurochem Res. 1996 Nov;21(11):1455-67. doi: 10.1007/BF02532386.


The incentive-motivating effects of external stimuli are dependent, in part, upon the internal need state of the organism. The increased rewarding efficacy of food as a function of energy deficit, for example, has obvious adaptive value. The enhancement of food reward extends, however, to drugs of abuse and electrical brain stimulation, probably due to a shared neural substrate. Research reviewed in this paper uses lateral hypothalamic electrical stimulation to probe the sensitivity of the brain reward system and investigate mechanisms through which metabolic need, induced by chronic food restriction and streptozotocin-induced diabetes, sensitizes this system. Results indicate that sensitivity to rewarding brain stimulation varies inversely with declining body weight. The effect is not mimicked by pharmacological glucoprivation or lipoprivation in ad libitum fed animals; sensitization appears to depend on persistent metabolic need or adipose depletion. While the literature suggests elevated plasma corticosterone as a peripheral trigger of reward sensitization, sensitization was not reversed by meal-induced or pharmacological suppression of plasma corticosterone. Centrally, reward sensitization is mediated by opioid receptors, since the effect is reversed by intracerebroventricular (i.c.v.) infusion of naltrexone, TCTAP (mu antagonist) and nor-binaltorphimine (kappa antagonist). The fact that these same treatments, as well as i.c.v. infusion of dynorphin A antiserum, block the feeding response to lateral hypothalamic stimulation suggests that feeding and reward sensitization are mediated by a common opioid mechanism. Using in vitro autoradiography, radioimmunoassays and a solution hybridization mRNA assay, brain regional mu and kappa opioid receptor binding, levels of prodynorphin-derived peptides, and prodynorphin mRNA, respectively, were measured in food-restricted and diabetic rats. Changes that could plausibly be involved in reward sensitization are discussed, with emphasis on the increased dynorphin A1-3 and prodynorphin mRNA levels in lateral hypothalamic neurons that innervate the pontine parabrachial nucleus, where mu binding decreased and kappa binding increased. Finally, the possible linkage between metabolic need and activation of a brain opioid mechanism is discussed, as is evidence supporting the relevance of these findings to drug abuse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Eating*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Narcotics* / metabolism
  • Narcotics* / pharmacology
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology
  • Reward*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*


  • Narcotics
  • Receptors, Opioid