A neuroendocrine role in cocaine reinforcement

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 1997 May;22(4):237-59. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4530(97)00027-9.


Cocaine stimulates the secretion of corticosterone and ACTH, probably through a CRF-related mechanism, indicating that the drug activates the HPA axis. Indeed, cocaine has been reported to produce anxiety and to precipitate episodes of panic attack during chronic use and withdrawal in humans and to induce anxiogenic behavior in animals. Cocaine also alters benzodiazepine receptor binding in discrete regions of the rat brain. Some of these changes in binding are obviously related to the convulsions and seizures which are often observed in an acute cocaine overdose. However, data from behavioral studies have suggested that some of these effects may be related directly to cocaine reinforcement since receptor changes also were observed when binding in the brains of rats that self-administered cocaine was compared with that from animals that had received identical yoked, but non-contingent infusions of the drug. In this regard, pretreatment with the benzodiazepine receptor agonists chlordiazepoxide and alprazolam decreased cocaine self-administration without decreasing food-reinforced responding, suggesting that these effects were specific for cocaine. Since this attenuation of self-administration was reversed by increasing the unit dose of cocaine, it is likely that these drugs were decreasing cocaine reinforcement. In contrast, exposure to stress increases vulnerability to self-administer psychostimulants. In these experiments, low-dose cocaine self-administration was related directly to stress-induced increases in plasma corticosterone, such that plasma corticosterone was always greater than 150 ng/ml for rats which subsequently self-administered cocaine at doses of 0.125 mg/kg/infusion or lower, suggesting a threshold for the hormone in cocaine reinforcement. In other experiments, bilateral adrenalectomy completely abolished the acquisition of intravenous cocaine self-administration in naive rats, while metyrapone decreased ongoing self-administration. In addition, ketoconazole pretreatment resulted in patterns of self-administration that were virtually indistinguishable from that observed during saline extinction, suggesting that plasma corticosterone is not only important, but may even be necessary for cocaine reinforcement. The mechanisms through which adrenocorticosteroids alter cocaine reinforcement remain to be determined, but there is increasing evidence that the mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic system is involved. In particular, the medial prefrontal cortex appears to be at least one brain region where dopamine and adrenocorticosteroids may interact to affect cocaine reinforcement.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cocaine*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Motivation*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Rats
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Cocaine
  • Dopamine
  • Corticosterone