GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program



Psychiatry; Tapper Lab

First Thesis Advisor

Andrew R. Tapper, PhD

Second Thesis Advisor

Paul D. Gardner, PhD


Nicotinic Receptors, Tobacco Use Disorder, Up-Regulation, GABAergic Neurons, Smoking Cessation


Dissertations, UMMS; Receptors, Nicotinic; Tobacco Use Disorder; Up-Regulation; GABAergic Neurons; Smoking Cessation


Nicotine dependence is hypothesized to be due to neuroadaptations that ultimately drive compulsive nicotine use. The studies in this thesis aim to understand how the “upregulation” of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) caused by chronic exposure to nicotine contributes to nicotine reward and nicotine withdrawal. Previous studies have shown that chronic nicotine induces upregulation of nAChRs containing the α4 subunit (α4* nAChR) within the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), a brain region critical for the rewarding properties of all illicit drugs. Curiously, α4* nAChR upregulation occurs specifically in the inhibitory GABAergic neuronal subpopulation of the VTA. To determine if increased expression and activation of α4* nAChRs in VTA GABAergic neurons contributes to nicotine dependence behaviors, I devised a viral-mediated, Creregulated gene expression system that selectively expressed α4 nAChR subunits containing a “gain-of-function” point mutation (a leucine mutated to a serine residue at the TM2 9´ position: Leu9´Ser) in VTA GABAergic neurons of adult mice. Sub-reward doses of nicotine were sufficient to activate VTA GABAergic neurons in mice expressing Leu9´Ser α4 nAChR subunits in VTA GABAergic neurons (Gad2VTA: Leu9´Ser mice) and exhibited acute hypolocomotion upon initial injection of low doses of nicotine that developed tolerance with subsequent nicotine exposures compared to control animals. In the conditioned place preference procedure, nicotine was sufficient to condition a significant place preference in Gad2VTA: Leu9´Ser mice at low nicotine doses that failed to condition control animals. I conclude from these data that upregulating α4* nAChRs on VTA GABAergic neurons increases sensitivity to nicotine reward. In a separate study testing the hypothesis that overexpression of Leu9´Ser α4* nAChRs in VTA GABAergic neurons disrupts baseline behavior and promotes anxiety-like behaviors, I found that overexpressing Leu9´Ser α4* nAChRs in VTA GABAergic neurons had a minimal effect on unconditioned anxiety-like behaviors. Drug naïve Gad2VTA: Leu9´Ser and control mice failed to exhibit any behavioral differences in the open-field, marble burying test and elevated plus maze compared to control.

Together, these data indicate that overexpression of the “gain-of-function” α4* nAChRs in VTA GABAergic neurons contributes to reward sensitivity without increasing susceptibility to nicotine withdrawal symptoms. My data indicates that nAChRs expressed in VTA GABAergic neurons may be a suitable target for the development of better smoking cessation aids.



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