Amphetamine blocks long-term synaptic depression in the ventral tegmental area.
The mesolimbic dopamine system is essential for reward-seeking behavior, and drugs of abuse are thought to usurp the normal functioning of this pathway. A growing body of evidence suggests that glutamatergic synapses on dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) are modified during exposure to addictive drugs, producing sensitization, a progressive augmentation in the rewarding properties of psychostimulant drugs with repeated exposure. We have tested the hypothesis that psychostimulant exposure interferes with the synaptic plasticity of glutamatergic inputs to the VTA. We find that excitatory synapses onto VTA dopamine neurons exhibit long-term depression (LTD) in response to low-frequency stimulation and modest depolarization. LTD in the VTA is NMDA receptor-independent but is dependent on intracellular Ca(2+) and can be induced by driving Ca(2+) into the dopamine neuron. Brief exposure to amphetamine entirely blocks LTD at glutamatergic synapses in the VTA, by releasing endogenous dopamine that acts at D2 dopamine receptors. The block of LTD is selective, because amphetamine has no effect on hippocampal LTD. The LTD we have discovered in the VTA is likely to be an important component of excitatory control of the reward pathway; amphetamine will inhibit LTD, removing this normal brake on the glutamatergic drive to dopamine neurons. This effect of amphetamine represents an important mechanism by which normal function of the brain reward system may be impaired during substance abuse.