Dopamine (DA) signaling in the central nervous system mediates the addictive capacities of multiple commonly abused substances, including cocaine, amphetamine, heroin and nicotine. The firing of DA neurons residing in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and the release of DA by the projections of these neurons in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), is under tight control by cholinergic signaling mediated by nicotinic acetylcholine (ACh) receptors (nAChRs). The capacity for cholinergic signaling is dictated by the availability and activity of the presynaptic, high-affinity, choline transporter (CHT, SLC5A7) that acquires choline in an activity-dependent matter to sustain ACh synthesis. Here, we present evidence that a constitutive loss of CHT expression, mediated by genetic elimination of one copy of the Slc5a7 gene in mice (CHT+/-), leads to a significant reduction in basal extracellular DA levels in the NAc, as measured by in vivo microdialysis. Moreover, CHT heterozygosity results in blunted DA elevations following systemic nicotine or cocaine administration. These findings reinforce a critical role of ACh signaling capacity in both tonic and drug-modulated DA signaling and argue that genetically imposed reductions in CHT that lead to diminished DA signaling may lead to poor responses to reinforcing stimuli, possibly contributing to disorders linked to perturbed cholinergic signaling including depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
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