GIRK channel activity in dopamine neurons of the ventral tegmental area bidirectionally regulates behavioral sensitivity to cocaine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Dopamine (DA) neurons of the VTA have been widely implicated in the cellular and behavioral responses to drugs of abuse. Inhibitory G protein signaling mediated by GABAB receptors (GABABRs) and D2 DA receptors (D2Rs) regulates the excitability of VTA DA neurons, DA neurotransmission, and behaviors modulated by DA. Most of the somatodendritic inhibitory effect of GABABR and D2R activation on DA neurons reflects the activation of G protein-gated inwardly rectifying K+ (GIRK) channels. Furthermore, GIRK-dependent signaling in VTA DA neurons can be weakened by exposure to psychostimulants and strengthened by phasic DA neuron firing. The objective of this study was to determine how the strength of GIRK channel activity in VTA DA neurons influences sensitivity to cocaine. We used a Cre-dependent viral strategy to overexpress the individual GIRK channel subunits in VTA DA neurons of male and female adult mice, leading to enhancement (GIRK2) or suppression (GIRK3) of GIRK channel activity. Overexpression of GIRK3 decreased somatodendritic GABABR- and D2R-dependent signaling and increased cocaine-induced locomotor activity, whereas overexpression of GIRK2 increased GABABR-dependent signaling and decreased cocaine-induced locomotion. Neither manipulation impacted anxiety- or depression-related behavior, despite the link between such behaviors and DA signaling. Together, these data show that behavioral sensitivity to cocaine in mice is inversely proportional to the strength of GIRK channel activity in VTA DA neurons and suggest that direct activators of the unique VTA DA neuron GIRK channel subtype (GIRK2/GIRK3 heteromer) could represent a promising therapeutic target for treatment of addiction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3600-3610
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number19
StatePublished - May 8 2019



  • D2 dopamine receptor
  • Dopamine
  • G protein
  • GABA
  • Kir3
  • VTA

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article

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