There is much interest in brain regions that drive nicotine intake in smokers. Interestingly, both the rewarding and aversive effects of nicotine are probably critical for sustaining nicotine addiction. The medial and lateral habenular (LHb) nuclei play important roles in processing aversion, and recent work has focused on the critical involvement of the LHb in encoding and responding to aversive stimuli. Several neurotransmitter systems are implicated in nicotine's actions, but very little is known about how nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) regulate LHb activity. Here we report in brain slices that activation of nAChRs depolarizes LHb cells and robustly increases firing, and also potentiates glutamate release in LHb. These effects were blocked by selective antagonists of α6-containing (α6∗) nAChRs, and were absent in α6∗-nAChR knockout mice. In addition, nicotine activates GABAergic inputs to LHb via α4β2-nAChRs, at lower concentrations but with more rapid desensitization relative to α6∗-nAChRs. These results demonstrate the existence of diverse functional nAChR subtypes at presynaptic and postsynaptic sites in LHb, through which nicotine could facilitate or inhibit LHb neuronal activity and thus contribute to nicotine aversion or reward.
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