Systemic administration of nicotine increases dopaminergic (DA) neuron firing in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is thought to underlie nicotine reward. Here, we report that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) plays a critical role in nicotine-induced excitation of VTA DA neurons. In chloral hydrate-anesthetized rats, extracellular single-unit recordings showed that VTA DA neurons exhibited two types of firing responses to systemic nicotine. After nicotine injection, the neurons with type-I response showed a biphasic early inhibition and later excitation, whereas the neurons with type-II response showed a monophasic excitation. The neurons with type-I, but not type-II, response exhibited pronounced slow oscillations (SOs) in firing. Pharmacological or structural mPFC inactivation abolished SOs and prevented systemic nicotine-induced excitation in the neurons with type-I, but not type-II, response, suggesting that these VTA DA neurons are functionally coupled to the mPFC and nicotine increases firing rate in these neurons in part through the mPFC. Systemic nicotine also increased the firing rate and SOs in mPFC pyramidal neurons. mPFC infusion of a non-7αnicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) antagonist mecamylamine blocked the excitatory effect of systemic nicotine on the VTA DA neurons with type-I response, but mPFC infusion of nicotine failed to excite these neurons. These results suggest that nAChR activation in the mPFC is necessary, but not sufficient, for systemic nicotine-induced excitation of VTA neurons. Finally, systemic injection of bicuculline prevented nicotine-induced firing alterations in the neurons with type-I response. We propose that the mPFC plays a critical role in systemic nicotine-induced excitation of VTA DA neurons.
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