Neuroplasticity in the mesolimbic dopamine system and cocaine addiction

M. J. Thomas, P. W. Kalivas, Y. Shaham

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

366 Scopus citations


The main characteristics of cocaine addiction are compulsive drug use despite adverse consequences and high rates of relapse during periods of abstinence. A current popular hypothesis is that compulsive cocaine use and cocaine relapse is due to drug-induced neuroadaptations in reward-related learning and memory processes, which cause hypersensitivity to cocaine-associated cues, impulsive decision making and abnormal habit-like learned behaviours that are insensitive to adverse consequences. Here, we review results from studies on the effect of cocaine exposure on selected signalling cascades, growth factors and physiological processes previously implicated in neuroplasticity underlying normal learning and memory. These include the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signalling pathway, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), glutamate transmission, and synaptic plasticity (primarily in the form of long-term potentiation and depression, LTP and LTD). We also discuss the degree to which these cocaine-induced neuroplasticity changes in the mesolimbic dopamine system mediate cocaine psychomotor sensitization and cocaine-seeking behaviours, as assessed in animal models of drug addiction. Finally, we speculate on how these factors may interact to initiate and sustain cocaine psychomotor sensitization and cocaine seeking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)327-342
Number of pages16
JournalBritish Journal of Pharmacology
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2008


  • Actin cycling
  • Dopamine
  • Extracellular signal-regulated kinase
  • Glutamate
  • Long-term depression
  • Long-term potentiation
  • Psychomotor sensitization
  • Reinstatement
  • Relapse
  • Synaptic plasticity


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