CCB Publications

Since its founding in 2017, the CCB has financially supported a variety of research investigations. While some of these projects are only just beginning, others, listed below, have been submitted to and published by neuroscience academic journals. Please note that future papers will be added to this list as they are published.

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A Note for CCB Fellows

If research you completed with the help of CCB funding is in the process of being submitted for publication, please include the following affiliation and acknowledgement statements in your paper:

Center on Compulsive Behaviors, Intramural Research Program, NIH, Bethesda, MD, USA

This study was funded by the Center on Compulsive Behaviors, NIH via the NIH Shared Resource Subcommittee to (YOUR INITIALS HERE)



A novel measure of matching categories for early development: Item creation and pilot feasibility study

CCB Fellow Emma Condy (NIMH) published in Research in Developmental Disabilities (August 2021)


Many cognitive tests assess a limited developmental span, making longitudinal measurement for trials aimed at improving cognition challenging. Tests targeting transitional skills, which integrate foundational abilities into complex schemas, may be amenable to assessment across a wide developmental span. Furthermore, tablet-based tests permit computer adaptive testing (CAT), which is psychometrically more efficient and could increase testing motivation, especially for children with developmental delays. Such measures may be useful for research and clinical practice.


Outline the creation of a novel, tablet-based concept formation test, and evaluate its feasibility in individuals with mental ages less than 24-months.

Methods and procedures

Item generation, user interface construction, and pre-piloting were conducted in consultation with subject matter experts. Item content and interface parameters underwent iterative revisions, resulting in the pilot test.

Outcomes and results

We created and piloted a tablet-based test of concept formation suitable for CAT-based administration with items of increasing difficulty based on target salience. We show feasibility in individuals with mental ages less than 24-months-old.

Conclusions and implications

Tablet-based assessment of concept formation may be a useful outcome measure of an aspect of cognitive ability in young children. Future work will address optimizing the user interface and developing CAT administration.

Regulation of hippocamposeptal input within the medial septum/diagonal band of Broca

CCB Fellow Joanne Damborsky (NIEHS) published in Neuropharmacology (June 2021)


The medial septum/diagonal band of Broca (MS/DBB) receives direct GABAergic input from the hippocampus via hippocamposeptal (HS) projection neurons as part of a reciprocal loop that mediates cognition and is altered in Alzheimer's disease. Cholinergic and GABAergic interactions occur throughout the MS/DBB, but it is not known how HS GABA release is impacted by these circuits. Most HS neurons contain somatostatin (SST), so to evoke HS GABA release we expressed Cre-dependent mCherry/channelrhodopisin-2 (ChR2) in the hippocampi of SST-IRES-Cre mice and then used optogenetics to stimulate HS fibers while performing whole-cell patch clamp recordings from MS/DBB neurons in acute slices. We found that the acetylcholine receptor (AChR) agonist carbachol and the GABAB receptor (GABABR) agonist baclofen significantly decreased HS GABA release in the MS/DBB. Carbachol's effects were blocked by eliminating local GABAergic activity or inhibiting GABABRs, indicating that it was indirectly decreasing HS GABA release by increasing GABAergic tone. There was no effect of acute exposure to amyloid-β on HS GABA release. Repetitive stimulation of HS fibers increased spontaneous GABA release in the MS/DBB, revealing that HS projections can modulate local GABAergic tone. These results show that HS GABA release has far-reaching impacts on overall levels of inhibition in the MS/DBB and is under regulatory control by cholinergic and GABAergic activity. This bidirectional modulation of GABA release from local and HS projections in the MS/DBB will likely have profound impact not only on activity within the MS/DBB, but also on output to the hippocampus and hippocampal-dependent learning and memory.

Neuroendocrine response to exogenous ghrelin administration, combined with alcohol, in heavy-drinking individuals: Findings from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human laboratory study

CCB Fellow Mehdi Farokhnia (NIAAA) published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology (June 2021)



Accumulating evidence has established a role for the orexigenic hormone ghrelin in alcohol-seeking behaviors. Accordingly, the ghrelin system may represent a potential pharmacotherapeutic target for alcohol use disorder. Ghrelin modulates several neuroendocrine pathways, such as appetitive, metabolic, and stress-related hormones, which are particularly relevant in the context of alcohol use. The goal of the present study was to provide a comprehensive assessment of neuroendocrine response to exogenous ghrelin administration, combined with alcohol, in heavy-drinking individuals.


This was a randomized, crossover, double-blind, placebo-controlled human laboratory study, which included 2 experimental alcohol administration paradigms: i.v. alcohol self-administration and i.v. alcohol clamp. Each paradigm consisted of 2 counterbalanced sessions of i.v. ghrelin or placebo administration. Repeated blood samples were collected during each session, and peripheral concentrations of the following hormones were measured: leptin, glucagon-like peptide-1, pancreatic polypeptide, gastric inhibitory peptide, insulin, insulin-like growth factor-1, cortisol, prolactin, and aldosterone.


Despite some statistical differences, findings were consistent across the 2 alcohol administration paradigms: i.v. ghrelin, compared to placebo, increased blood concentrations of glucagon-like peptide-1, pancreatic polypeptide, cortisol, and prolactin, both acutely and during the whole session. Lower levels of leptin and higher levels of aldosterone were also found during the ghrelin vs placebo session.


These findings, gathered from a clinically relevant sample of heavy-drinking individuals with alcohol use disorder, provide a deeper insight into the complex interplay between ghrelin and appetitive, metabolic, and stress-related neuroendocrine pathways in the context of alcohol use.

PCSK9 and the Gut-Liver-Brain Axis: A Novel Therapeutic Target for Immune Regulation in Alcohol Use Disorder

CCB Fellow Jisoo Lee (NIAAA) published in the Journal for Clinical Medicine (April 2021)


Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic relapsing disorder characterized by an impaired ability to control or stop alcohol intake and is associated with organ damage including alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD) and progressive neurodegeneration. The etiology of AUD is complex, but organ injury due to chronic alcohol use can be partially attributed to systemic and local inflammation along the gut-liver-brain axis. Excessive alcohol use can result in translocation of bacterial products into circulation, increased expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and activation of immune cells, including macrophages and/or microglia in the liver and brain. One potential mediator of this alcohol-induced inflammation is proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9). PCSK9 is primarily known for its regulation of plasma low-density lipoprotein cholesterol but has more recently been shown to influence inflammatory responses in the liver and brain. In rodent and post-mortem brain studies, chronic alcohol use altered methylation of the PCSK9 gene and increased expression of PCSK9 in the liver and cerebral spinal fluid. Additionally, PCSK9 inhibition in a rat model of ALD attenuated liver inflammation and steatosis. PCSK9 may play an important role in alcohol-induced pathologies along the gut-liver-brain axis and may be a novel therapeutic target for AUD-related liver and brain inflammation.

k-Opioid receptor antagonism reverses heroin withdrawal-induced hyperalgesia in male and female rats

CCB Fellow Renata Marchette (NIDA) published in Neurobiology of Stress (May 2021)


Although opioids are potent analgesics, a consequence of chronic opioid use is hyperalgesia during withdrawal, which may contribute to opioid misuse. Dynorphin, the endogenous ligand of κ-opioid receptors (KORs), is upregulated in opioid-dependent rats and in animal models of chronic pain. However, the role of KORs in opioid withdrawal-induced hyperalgesia remains to be determined. We hypothesized that KOR antagonism would reverse opioid withdrawal-induced hyperalgesia in opioid-dependent rats. Male and female Wistar rats received daily injections of heroin (2–6 mg/kg, SC) and were tested for mechanical sensitivity in the electronic von Frey test 4–6 h into withdrawal. Female rats required significantly more heroin than male rats to reach comparable levels of both heroin-induced analgesia and hyperalgesia (6 mg/kg vs. 2 mg/kg). Once hyperalgesia was established, we tested the effects of the KOR antagonists nor-binaltorphimine (norBNI; 30 mg/kg, SC) and 5-guanidinonaltrindole (5GNTI; 30 mg/kg, SC). When the animals continued to receive their daily heroin treatment (or saline treatment in the repeated saline group) five times per week throughout the experiment, both KOR antagonists reversed heroin withdrawal-induced hyperalgesia. The anti-hyperalgesia effect of norBNI was more prolonged in males than in females (14 days vs. 7 days), whereas 5GNTI had more prolonged effects in females than in males (14 days vs. 4 days). The behavioral effects of 5GNTI coincided with higher 5GNTI levels in the brain than in plasma when measured at 24 h, whereas 5GNTI did not reverse hyperalgesia at 30 min posttreatment when 5GNTI levels were higher in plasma than in the brain. Finally, we tested the effects of 5GNTI on naloxone-induced and spontaneous signs of opioid withdrawal and found no effect in either male or female rats. These findings indicate a functional role for KORs in heroin withdrawal-induced hyperalgesia that is observed in rats of both sexes.

Advances in understanding meso-cortico-limbic-striatal systems mediating risky reward seeking

CCB Fellow Patrick Piantadosi (NIAAA) published in Journal of Neurochemistry (March 2021)


The risk of an aversive consequence occurring as the result of a reward-seeking action can have a profound effect on subsequent behavior. Such aversive events can be described as punishers, as they decrease the probability that the same action will be produced again in the future and increase the exploration of less risky alternatives. Punishment can involve the omission of an expected rewarding event (“negative” punishment) or the addition of an unpleasant event (“positive” punishment). Although many individuals adaptively navigate situations associated with the risk of negative or positive punishment, those suffering from substance use disorders or behavioral addictions tend to be less able to curtail addictive behaviors despite the aversive consequences associated with them. Here, we discuss the psychological processes underpinning reward seeking despite the risk of negative and positive punishment and consider how behavioral assays in animals have been employed to provide insights into the neural mechanisms underlying addictive disorders. We then review the critical contributions of dopamine signaling to punishment learning and risky reward seeking, and address the roles of interconnected ventral striatal, cortical, and amygdala regions to these processes. We conclude by discussing the ample opportunities for future study to clarify critical gaps in the literature, particularly as related to delineating neural contributions to distinct phases of the risky decision-making process.

An excitatory lateral hypothalamic circuit orchestrating pain behaviors in mice

CCB Fellow Justin Siemian published in eLife (May 2021)


Understanding how neuronal circuits control nociceptive processing will advance the search for novel analgesics. We use functional imaging to demonstrate that lateral hypothalamic parvalbumin-positive (LHPV) glutamatergic neurons respond to acute thermal stimuli and a persistent inflammatory irritant. Moreover, their chemogenetic modulation alters both pain-related behavioral adaptations and the unpleasantness of a noxious stimulus. In two models of persistent pain, optogenetic activation of LHPV neurons or their ventrolateral periaqueductal gray area (vlPAG) axonal projections attenuates nociception, and neuroanatomical tracing reveals that LHPV neurons preferentially target glutamatergic over GABAergic neurons in the vlPAG. By contrast, LHPV projections to the lateral habenula regulate aversion but not nociception. Finally, we find that LHPV activation evokes additive to synergistic antinociceptive interactions with morphine and restores morphine antinociception following the development of morphine tolerance. Our findings identify LHPV neurons as a lateral hypothalamic cell type involved in nociception and demonstrate their potential as a target for analgesia.

Reward-related choices determine information timing and flow across macaque lateral prefrontal cortex

CCB Fellow Hua Tang (NIMH/NIAAA) published in Nature Communications (February 2021)


Prefrontal cortex is critical for cognition. Although much is known about the representation of cognitive variables in the prefrontal cortex, much less is known about the spatio-temporal neural dynamics that underlie cognitive operations. In the present study, we examined information timing and flow across the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), while monkeys carried out a two-armed bandit reinforcement learning task in which they had to learn to select rewarding actions or rewarding objects. When we analyzed signals independently within subregions of the LPFC, we found a task-specific, caudo-rostral gradient in the strength and timing of signals related to chosen objects and chosen actions. In addition, when we characterized information flow among subregions, we found that information flow from action to object representations was stronger from the dorsal to ventral LPFC, and information flow from object to action representations was stronger from the ventral to dorsal LPFC. The object to action effects were more pronounced in object blocks, and also reflected learning specifically in these blocks. These results suggest anatomical segregation followed by the rapid integration of information within the LPFC.

Progress in opioid reward research: From a canonical two-neuron hypothesis to two neural circuits

CCB Fellow Ewa Galai (NIDA/NIAAA) published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior (January 2021)


Opioid abuse and related overdose deaths continue to rise in the United States, contributing to the national opioid crisis in the USA. The neural mechanisms underlying opioid abuse and addiction are still not fully understood. This review discusses recent progress in basic research dissecting receptor mechanisms and circuitries underlying opioid reward and addiction. We first review the canonical GABA-dopamine neuron hypothesis that was upheld for half a century, followed by major findings challenging this hypothesis. We then focus on recent progress in research evaluating the role of the mesolimbic and nigrostriatal dopamine circuitries in opioid reward and relapse. Based on recent findings that activation of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc) is equally rewarding and that GABA neurons in the rostromedial tegmental nucleus (RMTg) and the substantia nigra pars reticula (SNr) are rich in mu opioid receptors and directly synapse onto midbrain DA neurons, we proposed that the RTMgVTA ventrostriatal and SNr SNc dorsostriatal pathways may act as the two major neural substrates underlying opioid reward and abuse. Lastly, we discuss possible integrations of these two pathways during initial opioid use, development of opioid abuse and maintenance of compulsive opioid seeking.

The orbitofrontal cartographer

CCB Fellow Matthew Gardner (NIDA) published in Behavioral Neuroscience (April 2021)


Theories of orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) function have evolved substantially over the last few decades. There is now a general consensus that the OFC is important for predicting aspects of future events and for using these predictions to guide behavior. Yet the precise content of these predictions and the degree to which OFC contributes to agency contingent upon them has become contentious, with several plausible theories advocating different answers to these questions. In this review we will focus on three of these ideas—the economic value, credit assignment, and cognitive map hypotheses—describing both their successes and failures. We will propose that these failures hint at a more nuanced and perhaps unique role for the OFC, particularly the lateral subdivision, in supporting the proposed functions when an underlying model or map of the causal structures in the environment must be constructed or updated.

Pharmacology in the age of circuit neuroscience: Illuminating the neural mechanisms of reward, drug use and addiction and enlightening the future of translational research

CCB Fellow Chloe Jordan (NIDA/NIAAA) published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior (July 2021)

The brain remains one of the last frontiers in biology and medicine. Since its first recorded mention on an Egyptian papyrus in the 17th century BCE (Kamp et al., 2012), understanding brain function, its impact on our daily lives, and its role in the course of psychiatric diseases has been a fixation that has captivated medical and scientific professionals and the public alike. How does this enormously complex system, sculpted across millennia of evolution out of the will to survive, govern all that we think, remember, feel, and do? What changes in this labyrinth of soft tissue underlie the profound disturbances in our experience resulting from neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, dementia, and addiction? While these questions have been pondered for centuries, it is only during the last few decades that we have made great strides towards finding the answers.

Cannabis use, abuse, and withdrawal: Cannabinergic mechanisms, clinical, and preclinical findings

CCB Fellow Andrew Kesner (NIAAA/NIMH) published in Journal of Neurochemistry (April 2021)


Cannabis sativa is the most widely used illicit drug in the world. Its main psychoactive component is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of over 100 phytocannabinoid compounds produced by the cannabis plant. THC is the primary compound that drives cannabis abuse potential and is also used and prescribed medically for therapeutic qualities. Despite its therapeutic potential, a significant subpopulation of frequent cannabis or THC users will develop a drug use syndrome termed cannabis use disorder. Individuals suffering from cannabis use disorder exhibit many of the hallmarks of classical addictions including cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms. Currently, there are no efficacious treatments for cannabis use disorder or withdrawal symptoms. This makes both clinical and preclinical research on the neurobiological mechanisms of these syndromes ever more pertinent. Indeed, basic research using animal models has provided valuable evidence of the neural molecular and cellular actions of cannabis that mediate its behavioral effects. One of the main components being central action on the cannabinoid type-one receptor and downstream intracellular signaling related to the endogenous cannabinoid system. Back-translational studies have provided insight linking preclinical basic and behavioral biology research to better understand symptoms observed at the clinical level. This narrative review aims to summarize major research elucidating the molecular, cellular, and behavioral manifestations of cannabis/THC use that play a role in cannabis use disorder and withdrawal.

Shared and Anxiety-Specific Pediatric Psychopathology Dimensions Manifest Distributed Neural Correlates

CCB Fellow Julia Linke (NIMH) published in Biology Psychiatry (March 2021)



Imaging research has not yet delivered reliable psychiatric biomarkers. One challenge, particularly among youth, is high comorbidity. This challenge might be met through canonical correlation analysis designed to model mutual dependencies between symptom dimensions and neural measures. We mapped the multivariate associations that intrinsic functional connectivity manifests with pediatric symptoms of anxiety, irritability, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as common, impactful, co-occurring problems. We evaluate the replicability of such latent dimensions in an independent sample.


We obtained ratings of anxiety, irritability, and ADHD, and 10 minutes of resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging data, from two independent cohorts. Both cohorts (discovery: n = 182; replication: n = 326) included treatment-seeking youth with anxiety disorders, with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, with ADHD, or without psychopathology. Functional connectivity was modeled as partial correlations among 216 brain areas. Using canonical correlation analysis and independent component analysis jointly we sought maximally correlated, maximally interpretable latent dimensions of brain connectivity and clinical symptoms.


We identified seven canonical variates in the discovery and five in the replication cohort. Of these canonical variates, three exhibited similarities across datasets: two variates consistently captured shared aspects of irritability, ADHD, and anxiety, while the third was specific to anxiety. Across cohorts, canonical variates did not relate to specific resting-state networks but comprised edges interconnecting established networks within and across both hemispheres.


Findings revealed two replicable types of clinical variates, one related to multiple symptom dimensions and a second relatively specific to anxiety. Both types involved a multitude of broadly distributed, weak brain connections as opposed to strong connections encompassing known resting-state networks.

Fluorescence microendoscopy for in vivo deep-brain imaging of neuronal circuits

CCB Fellow Brenton Laing published in Journal of Neuroscience Methods (January 2021)


Imaging neuronal activity in awake, behaving animals has become a groundbreaking method in neuroscience that has rapidly enhanced our understanding of how the brain works. In vivo microendoscopic imaging has enabled researchers to see inside the brains of experimental animals and thus has emerged as a technology fit to answer many experimental questions. By combining microendoscopy with cutting edge targeting strategies and sophisticated analysis tools, neuronal activity patterns that underlie changes in behavior and physiology can be identified. However, new users may find it challenging to understand the techniques and to leverage this technology to best suit their needs. Here we present a background and overview of the necessary components for performing in vivo optical calcium imaging and offer some detailed guidance for current recommended approaches.



Effects of exogenous ghrelin administration and ghrelin receptor blockage, in combination with alcohol, on peripheral inflammatory markers in heavy-drinking individuals: Results from two human laboratory studies

CCB Fellow Mehdi Farokhnia (NIAAA) published in Brain Research (August 2020)


The ghrelin system has been garnering interest for its role in different neuropsychiatric disorders, including alcohol use disorder (AUD). Accordingly, targeting the ghrelin system is under investigation as a potential novel therapeutic approach. While alcohol provokes the immune system and inflammatory responses, ghrelin has potent immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties. The present study aimed to shed light on the “crosstalk” between ghrelin and inflammation by examining the effects of exogenous ghrelin administration and ghrelin receptor blockade on peripheral inflammatory markers in the context of two human laboratory studies with alcohol administration. Non-treatment-seeking, heavy-drinking individuals with alcohol dependence, the majority of whom were African American males, were enrolled. In the first randomized, crossover, double-blind, placebo-controlled human laboratory study, participants underwent two experimental paradigms – an intravenous alcohol self-administration (IV-ASA) and an intravenous alcohol clamp (IV-AC) – each consisting of two counterbalanced sessions (ghrelin, placebo). A loading dose of intravenous ghrelin (3 mcg/kg) or placebo, followed by a continuous ghrelin (16.9 ng/kg/min) or placebo infusion was administered. In the second dose-escalating, single-blind, placebo-controlled human laboratory phase 1b study, participants were dosed with an oral ghrelin receptor blocker (PF-5190457) and underwent an oral alcohol challenge. Repeated blood samples were collected, and plasma concentrations of the following inflammatory markers were measured: C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin (IL)-6, IL-10, IL-18, and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α). During the IV-ASA experiment, significant drug × time interaction effects were observed for IL-6 (F3,36 = 3.345, p = 0.030) and IL-10 (F3,53.2 = 4.638, p = 0.006), indicating that ghrelin, compared to placebo, significantly reduced blood concentrations of the proinflammatory cytokine IL-6, while increasing blood concentrations of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10. No significant drug × time interaction effects were observed during the IV-AC experiment, possibly because of its much shorter duration and/or smaller sample. Treatment with PF-5190457, compared to placebo, had no significant effect on the inflammatory markers investigated. In conclusion, a supraphysiologic pharmacological challenge with exogenous ghrelin in heavy-drinking individuals produced anti-inflammatory effects in the context of intravenous alcohol administration. On the contrary, ghrelin receptor blockade did not lead to any change in the inflammatory markers included in this study. Mechanistic studies are required to better understand the interaction between ghrelin, alcohol, and inflammatory processes.

Possible Receptor Mechanisms Underlying Cannabidiol Effects on Addictive-like Behaviors in Experimental Animals

CCB Fellow Ewa Galai (NIDA/NIAAA) published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences (December 2020)


Substance use disorder (SUD) is a serious public health problem worldwide for which available treatments show limited effectiveness. Since the legalization of cannabis and the approval of cannabidiol (CBD) by the US Food and Drug Administration, therapeutic potential of CBD for the treatment of SUDs and other diseases has been widely explored. In this mini-review article, we first review the history and evidence supporting CBD as a potential pharmacotherapeutic. We then focus on recent progress in preclinical research regarding the pharmacological efficacy of CBD and the underlying receptor mechanisms on addictive-like behavior. Growing evidence indicates that CBD has therapeutic potential in reducing drug reward, as assessed in intravenous drug self-administration, conditioned place preference and intracranial brain-stimulation reward paradigms. In addition, CBD is effective in reducing relapse in experimental animals. Both in vivo and in vitro receptor mechanism studies indicate that CBD may act as a negative allosteric modulator of type 1 cannabinoid (CB1) receptor and an agonist of type 2 cannabinoid (CB2), transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1), and serotonin 5-HT1A receptors. Through these multiple-receptor mechanisms, CBD is believed to modulate brain dopamine in response to drugs of abuse, leading to attenuation of drug-taking and drug-seeking behavior. While these findings suggest that CBD is a promising therapeutic candidate, further investigation is required to verify its safety, pharmacological efficacy and the underlying receptor mechanisms in both experimental animals and humans.

Beta-caryophyllene inhibits cocaine addiction-related behavior by activation of PPARa and PPARg: repurposing a FDA-approved food additive for cocaine use disorder

CCB Fellow Ewa Galai (NIDA/NIAAA) published in Neuropsychopharmacology (October 2020)

Cocaine abuse continues to be a serious health problem worldwide. Despite intense research, there is still no FDA-approved medication to treat cocaine use disorder (CUD). In this report, we explored the potential utility of beta-caryophyllene (BCP), an FDA-approved food additive for the treatment of CUD. We found that BCP, when administered intraperitoneally or intragastrically, dose-dependently attenuated cocaine self-administration, cocaine-conditioned place preference, and cocaine-primed reinstatement of drug seeking in rats. In contrast, BCP failed to alter food self-administration or cocaine-induced hyperactivity. It also failed to maintain self-administration in a drug substitution test, suggesting that BCP has no abuse potential. BCP was previously reported to be a selective CB2 receptor agonist. Unexpectedly, pharmacological blockade or genetic deletion of CB1, CB2, or GPR55 receptors in gene-knockout mice failed to alter BCP’s action against cocaine self-administration, suggesting the involvement of non-CB1, non-CB2, and non-GPR55 receptor mechanisms. Furthermore, pharmacological blockade of μ opioid receptor or Toll-like receptors complex failed to alter, while blockade of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARα, PPARγ) reversed BCP-induced reduction in cocaine self-administration, suggesting the involvement of PPARα and PPARγ in BCP’s action. Finally, we used electrical and optogenetic intracranial self-stimulation (eICSS, oICSS) paradigms to study the underlying neural substrate mechanisms. We found that BCP is more effective in attenuation of cocaine-enhanced oICSS than eICSS, the former driven by optical activation of midbrain dopamine neurons in DAT-cre mice. These findings indicate that BCP may be useful for the treatment of CUD, likely by stimulation of PPARα and PPARγ in the mesolimbic system.

Dissecting the Role of GABA Neurons in the VTA versus SNr in Opioid Reward

CCB Fellow Ewa Galai (NIDA/NIAAA) published in the Journal of Neuroscience (November 2020)


Opioid reward has traditionally been thought to be mediated by GABA-induced disinhibition of dopamine (DA) neurons in the VTA. However, direct behavioral evidence supporting this hypothesis is still lacking. In this study, we found that the μ opioid receptor (MOR) gene, Oprm1, is highly expressed in GABA neurons, with 50% of GABA neurons in the substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNr), 30% in the VTA, and 70% in the tail of the VTA (also called the rostromedial tegmental nucleus) in male rats. No Oprm1 mRNA was detected in midbrain DA neurons. We then found that optogenetic inhibition of VTA DA neurons reduced intravenous heroin self-administration, whereas activation of these neurons produced robust optical intracranial self-stimulation in DAT-Cre mice, supporting an important role of DA neurons in opioid reward. Unexpectedly, pharmacological blockade of MORs in the SNr was more effective than in the VTA in reducing heroin reward. Optogenetic activation of VTA GABA neurons caused place aversion and inhibited cocaine, but not heroin, self-administration, whereas optogenetic activation of SNr GABA neurons caused a robust increase in heroin self-administration with an extinction pattern, suggesting a compensatory response in drug intake due to reduced heroin reward. In addition, activation of SNr GABA neurons attenuated heroin-primed, but not cue-induced, reinstatement of drug-seeking behavior, whereas inhibition of SNr GABA neurons produced optical intracranial self-stimulation and place preference. Together, these findings suggest that MORs on GABA neurons in the SNr play more important roles in opioid reward and relapse than MORs on VTA GABA neurons.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Opioid reward has long been believed to be mediated by inhibition of GABA interneurons in the VTA that subsequently leads to disinhibition of DA neurons. In this study, we found that more μ opioid receptors (MORs) are expressed in GABA neurons in the neighboring SNr than in the VTA, and that pharmacological blockade of MORs in the SNr is more effective in reducing heroin reward than blockade of MORs in the VTA. Furthermore, optogenetic activation of VTA GABA neurons inhibited cocaine, but not heroin, self-administration, whereas activation of SNr GABA neurons inhibited heroin reward and relapse. These findings suggest that opioid reward is more likely mediated by stimulation of MORs in GABA afferents from other brain regions than in VTA GABA neurons.

Dopamine D3 receptor-based medication development for the treatment of opioid use disorder: Rationale, progress, and challenges

CCB Fellow Ewa Galai (NIDA/NIAAA) published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (July 2020)


Opioid abuse and related overdose deaths continue to rise in the United States, contributing to the current national opioid crisis. Although several opioid-based pharmacotherapies are available (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine, naloxone), they show limited effectiveness in long-term relapse prevention. In response to the opioid crisis, the National Institute on Drug Abuse proposed a list of pharmacological targets of highest priority for medication development for the treatment of opioid use disorders (OUD). Among these are antagonists of dopamine D3 receptors (D3R). In this review, we first review recent progress in research of the dopamine hypothesis of opioid reward and abuse and then describe the rationale and recent development of D3R ligands for the treatment of OUD. Herein, an emphasis is placed on the effectiveness of newly developed D3R antagonists in the animal models of OUD. These new drug candidates may also potentiate the analgesic effects of clinically used opioids, making them attractive as adjunctive medications for pain management and treatment of OUD.

Effects of oral, smoked, and vaporized cannabis on endocrine pathways related to appetite and metabolism: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, human laboratory study.

CCB Fellow Mehdi Farokhnia published in Translational Psychiatry (February 2020)

Abstract: As perspectives on cannabis continue to shift, understanding the physiological and behavioral effects of cannabis use is of paramount importance. Previous data suggest that cannabis use influences food intake, appetite, and metabolism, yet human research in this regard remains scant. The present study investigated the effects of cannabis administration, via different routes, on peripheral concentrations of appetitive and metabolic hormones in a sample of cannabis users. This was a randomized, crossover, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Twenty participants underwent four experimental sessions during which oral cannabis, smoked cannabis, vaporized cannabis, or placebo was administered. Active compounds contained 6.9 ± 0.95% (~50.6 mg) Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Repeated blood samples were obtained, and the following endocrine markers were measured: total ghrelin, acyl-ghrelin, leptin, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), and insulin. Results showed a significant drug main effect (p = 0.001), as well as a significant drug × time-point interaction effect (p = 0.01) on insulin. The spike in blood insulin concentrations observed under the placebo condition (probably due to the intake of brownie) was blunted by cannabis administration. A significant drug main effect (p = 0.001), as well as a trend-level drug × time-point interaction effect (p = 0.08) was also detected for GLP-1, suggesting that GLP-1 concentrations were lower under cannabis, compared to the placebo condition. Finally, a significant drug main effect (p = 0.01) was found for total ghrelin, suggesting that total ghrelin concentrations during the oral cannabis session were higher than the smoked and vaporized cannabis sessions. In conclusion, cannabis administration in this study modulated blood concentrations of some appetitive and metabolic hormones, chiefly insulin, in cannabis users. Understanding the mechanisms underpinning these effects may provide additional information on the cross-talk between cannabinoids and physiological pathways related to appetite and metabolism.

Continuous Representations of Speed by Striatal Medium Spiny Neurons.

CCB Alumni Wambura Fobbs published in Journal of Neuroscience (February 2020)

Abstract: The striatum is critical for controlling motor output. However, it remains unclear how striatal output neurons encode and facilitate movement. A prominent theory suggests that striatal units encode movements in bursts of activity near specific events, such as the start or end of actions. These bursts are theorized to gate or permit specific motor actions, thereby encoding and facilitating complex sequences of actions. An alternative theory has suggested that striatal neurons encode continuous changes in sensory or motor information with graded changes in firing rate. Supporting this theory, many striatal neurons exhibit such graded changes without bursting near specific actions. Here, we evaluated these two theories in the same recordings of mice (both male and female). We recorded single-unit and multiunit activity from the dorsomedial striatum of mice as they spontaneously explored an arena. We observed both types of encoding, although continuous encoding was more prevalent than bursting near movement initiation or termination. The majority of recorded units did not exhibit positive linear relationships with speed but instead exhibited nonlinear relationships that peaked at a range of locomotor speeds. Bulk calcium recordings of identified direct and indirect pathway neurons revealed similar speed tuning profiles, indicating that the heterogeneity in response profiles was not due to this genetic distinction. We conclude that continuous encoding of speed is a central component of movement encoding in the striatum.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The striatum is a structure that is linked to volitional movements and is a primary site of pathology in movement disorders. It remains unclear how striatal neurons encode motor parameters and use them to facilitate movement. Here, we evaluated two models for this: a “discrete encoding model” in which striatal neurons facilitate movements with brief burst of activity near the start and end of movements, and a “continuous encoding model”, in which striatal neurons encode the sensory or motor state of the animal with continuous changes in firing. We found evidence primarily in support of the continuous encoding model. This may have implications for understanding the striatal control of movement, as well as informing therapeutic approaches for treating movement disorders.

Effect of the dopamine stabilizer (-)-OSU6162 on potentiated incubation of opioid craving after electric barrier-induced voluntary abstinence

CCB Fellow Ida Fredriksson published in Neuropsychopharmacology (January 2020)

Abstract: In the classical incubation of drug craving rat model, drug seeking is assessed after homecage forced abstinence. However, human abstinence is often voluntary because negative consequences of drug seeking outweigh the desire for the drug. Here, we developed a rat model of incubation of opioid craving after electric barrier-induced voluntary abstinence and determined whether the dopamine stabilizer (-)-OSU6162 would decrease this new form of incubation. We trained male and female rats to self-administer oxycodone (0.1 mg/kg/infusion, 6 h/day) for 14 days. We then exposed them to either homecage forced abstinence or voluntary abstinence induced by an electric barrier of increasing intensity near the drug-paired lever. On abstinence days 1, 15, or 30, we tested the rats for oxycodone seeking without shock and drug. We also examined the effect of (-)-OSU6162 (7.5 and 15 mg/kg) on oxycodone seeking on abstinence day 1 or after 15 days of either voluntary or forced abstinence. Independent of sex, the time-dependent increase in oxycodone seeking after cessation of opioid self-administration (incubation of opioid craving) was stronger after voluntary abstinence than after forced abstinence. In males, (-)-OSU6162 decreased incubated (day 15) but not non-incubated (day 1) oxycodone seeking after either voluntary or forced abstinence. In females, (-)-OSU6162 modestly decreased incubated oxycodone seeking after voluntary but not forced abstinence. Results suggest that voluntary abstinence induced by negative consequences of drug seeking can paradoxically potentiate opioid craving and relapse. We propose the dopamine stabilizer (-)-OSU6162 may serve as an adjunct pharmacological treatment to prevent relapse in male opioid users.

Taking action: empathy and social interaction in rats.

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro published in Neuropsychopharmacology (January 2020)

Abstract: Imagine you are walking and notice a person crying on the sidewalk visibly in distress. This individual is not familiar to you and has not requested any assistance, so you understandably hesitate to approach. A likely question you may ask yourself in that moment of indecision is whether you would like a stranger to offer support if you found yourself in a similar situation. Do you ultimately stop to offer emotional support? The ability to understand the circumstances of someone other than yourself is defined as empathy. Empathy is a complex behavior that facilitates the formation of social connections through interpersonal socialization and aid. A lack of empathy can contribute to the psychopathology of several neuropsychiatric diseases, including autism spectrum disorder and substance use disorder. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the psychological processes and neurobiological substrates of empathic behavior.

Cannabidiol attenuates the rewarding effects of cocain in rats by CB2, 5-HT1A and TRPV1 receptor mechanisms

CCB Fellow Ewa Galai (NIDA/NIAAA) published in Neuropharmacology (May 2020)


Cocaine abuse continues to be a serious health problem worldwide. Despite intense research there is currently no FDA-approved medication to treat cocaine use disorder. The recent search has been focused on agents targeting primarily the dopamine system, while limited success has been achieved at the clinical level. Cannabidiol (CBD) is a U.S. FDA-approved cannabinoid for the treatment of epilepsy and recently was reported to have therapeutic potential for other disorders. Here we systemically evaluated its potential utility for the treatment of cocaine use disorder and explored the underlying receptor mechanisms in experimental animals. Systemic administration (10–40mg/kg) of CBD dose-dependently inhibited cocaine self-administration, shifted a cocaine dose-response curve downward, and lowered break-points for cocaine self-administration under a progressive-ratio schedule of reinforcement. CBD inhibited cocaine self-administration maintained by low, but not high, doses of cocaine. In addition, CBD (3–20mg/kg) dose-dependently attenuated cocaine-enhanced brain-stimulation reward (BSR) in rats. Strikingly, this reduction in both cocaine self-administration and BSR was blocked by AM630 (a cannabinoid CB2 receptor antagonist), WAY100135 (a 5-HT1A receptor antagonist), or capsazepine (a TRPV1 channel blocker), but not by AM251 (a CB1 receptor antagonist), CID16020046 (a GPR55 antagonist), or naloxone (an opioid receptor antagonist), suggesting the involvement of CB2, 5-HT1A, and TRPV1 receptors in CBD action. In vivo microdialysis indicated that pretreatment with CBD (10–20mg/kg) attenuated cocaine-induced increases in extracellular dopamine (DA) in the nucleus accumbens, while CBD alone failed to alter extracellular DA. These findings suggest that CBD may have certain therapeutic utility by blunting the acute rewarding effects of cocaine via a DA-dependent mechanism.

Delta glutamate receptor conductance drives excitation of mouse dorsal raphe neurons

CCB Fellow Stephanie Gantz (NIDA) published in eLife (April 2020)

The dorsal raphe nucleus is the predominant source of central serotonin, where neuronal activity regulates complex emotional behaviors. Action potential firing of serotonin dorsal raphe neurons is driven via α1-adrenergic receptors (α1-AR) activation. Despite this crucial role, the ion channels responsible for α1-AR-mediated depolarization are unknown. Here, we show in mouse brain slices that α1-AR-mediated excitatory synaptic transmission is mediated by the ionotropic glutamate receptor homolog cation channel, delta glutamate receptor 1 (GluD1). GluD1R-channels are constitutively active under basal conditions carrying tonic inward current and synaptic activation of α1-ARs augments tonic GluD1R-channel current. Further, loss of dorsal raphe GluD1R-channels produces an anxiogenic phenotype. Thus, GluD1R-channels are responsible for α1-AR-dependent induction of persistent pacemaker-type firing of dorsal raphe neurons and regulate dorsal raphe-related behavior. Given the widespread distribution of these channels, ion channel function of GluD1R as a regulator of neuronal excitability is proposed to be widespread in the nervous system.

Processing in Lateral Orbitofrontal Cortex Is Required to Estimate Subjective Preference during Initial, but Not Established, Economic Choice

CCB Fellow Matthew Gardner (NIDA) published in Neuron (November 2020)

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is proposed to be critical to economic decision making. Yet one can inactivate OFC without affecting well-practiced choices. One possible explanation of this lack of effect is that well-practiced decisions are codified into habits or configural-based policies not normally thought to require OFC. Here, we tested this idea by training rats to choose between different pellet pairs across a set of standard offers and then inactivating OFC subregions during choices between novel offers of previously experienced pairs or between novel pairs of previously experienced pellets. Contrary to expectations, controls performed as well on novel as experienced offers yet had difficulty initially estimating their subjective preference on novel pairs, difficulty exacerbated by lateral OFC inactivation. This pattern of results indicates that established economic choice reflects the use of an underlying model or goods space and that lateral OFC is only required for normal behavior when the established framework must incorporate new information.

Neuroscience: From Sensory Discrimination to Choice in Gustatory Cortex

CCB Fellow Matthew Gardner (NIDA) published in Current Biology (May 2020)


Sensory areas have been shown to be influenced by higher-order cognitive processes. Yet how do these top-down processes affect decisions? A recent study has revealed a dynamic evolution of neural activity from sensory discrimination to choice in rodent taste cortex.

Gene co-expression networks are associated with obesity-related traits in kidney transplant recipients

CCB Fellow Rosario Jaime-Lara (NINR/NIAAA) published in BMC Medical Genomics (March 2020)



Obesity is common among kidney transplant recipients; However biological mediators of obesity are not well understood in this population. Because subcutaneous adipose tissue can be easily obtained during kidney transplant surgery, it provides a unique avenue for studying the mechanisms of obesity for this group. Although differential gene expression patterns were previously profiled for kidney transplant patients, gene co-expression patterns can shed light on gene modules not yet explored on the coordinative behaviors of gene transcription in biological and disease processes from a systems perspective.


In this study, we collected 29 demographic and clinical variables and matching microarray expression data for 26 kidney transplant patients. We conducted Weighted Gene Correlation Network Analysis (WGCNA) for 5758 genes with the highest average expression levels and related gene co-expression to clinical traits.


A total of 35 co-expression modules were detected, two of which showed associations with obesity-related traits, mainly at baseline. Gene Ontology (GO) enrichment was found for these two clinical trait-associated modules. One module consisting of 129 genes was enriched for a variety of processes, including cellular homeostasis and immune responses. The other module consisting of 36 genes was enriched for tissue development processes.


Our study generated gene co-expression modules associated with obesity-related traits in kidney transplant patients and provided new insights regarding the cellular biological processes underlying obesity in this population.

(±)VK4-40, a novel dopamine D3 receptor partial agonist, attenuates cocaine reward and relapse in rodents

CCB Fellow Chloe Jordan (NIDA/NIAAA) published in British Journal of Pharmacology (August 2020)


Background and Purpose

Despite widespread abuse of cocaine, there are no approved treatments for cocaine use disorder. Chronic cocaine use is associated with up-regulated dopamine D3 receptor expression in the brain. Therefore, most D3-based medication development has focused on D3 antagonists. However, D3 antagonists do not attenuate cocaine intake under “easy” self-administration conditions, when response requirements are low. We evaluated a novel, highly selective and metabolically stable D3 partial agonist, (±)VK4-40, for its efficacy in reducing cocaine intake and relapse to drug seeking.

Experimental Approach

The impact of (±)VK4-40 on cocaine intake and relapse was evaluated using intravenous self-administration procedures under a fixed-ratio 2 reinforcement schedule and cocaine-primed reinstatement conditions in rats. Optogenetic brain-stimulation reward procedures were used to evaluate the interaction of (±)VK4-40 and cocaine in the mesolimbic dopamine system in mice. Sucrose self-administration in rats and a conditioned place preference paradigm in mice were used to evaluate the abuse potential of (±)VK4-40 alone and other unwanted effects.

Key Results

(±)VK4-40 dose-dependently reduced cocaine self-administration and cocaine-primed reinstatement of drug-seeking behaviour. (±)VK4-40 also inhibited cocaine-enhanced brain-stimulation reward caused by optogenetic stimulation of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area. (±)VK4-40 alone decreased brain-stimulation reward but produced neither conditioned place preference nor place aversion. This new D3 partial agonist also failed to alter oral sucrose self-administration.

Conclusion and Implications

The novel D3 partial agonist, (±)VK4-40 attenuates cocaine reward and relapse in rodents, without significant unwanted effects. These findings support further investigation of D3 partial agonists as putative treatments for cocaine use disorder.

Xie2-64, a novel CB2 receptor inverse agonist, reduces cocaine abuse-related behaviors in rodents

CCB Fellow Chloe Jordan (NIDA/NIAAA) published in Neuropharmacology (October 2020)

Cocaine abuse remains a public health threat around the world. There are no pharmacological treatments approved for cocaine use disorder. Cannabis has received growing attention as a treatment for many conditions, including addiction. Most cannabis-based medication development has focused on cannabinoid CB1 receptor (CB1R) antagonists (and also inverse agonists) such as rimonabant, but clinical trials with rimonabant have failed due to its significant side-effects. Here we sought to determine whether a novel and selective CB2R inverse agonist, Xie2-64, has similar therapeutic potential for cocaine use disorder. Computational modeling indicated that Xie2-64 binds to CB2R in a way similar to SR144528, another well-characterized but less selective CB2R antagonist/inverse agonist, suggesting that Xie2-64 may also have CB2R antagonist profiles. Unexpectedly, systemic administration of Xie2-64 or SR144528 dose-dependently inhibited intravenous cocaine self-administration and shifted cocaine dose-response curves downward in rats and wild-type, but not in CB2R-knockout, mice. Xie2-64 also dose-dependently attenuated cocaine-enhanced brain-stimulation reward maintained by optical stimulation of ventral tegmental area dopamine (DA) neurons in DAT-Cre mice, while Xie2-64 or SR144528 alone inhibited optical brain-stimulation reward. In vivo microdialysis revealed that systemic or local administration of Xie2-64 into the nucleus accumbens reduced extracellular dopamine levels in a dose-dependent manner in rats. Together, these results suggest that Xie2-64 has significant anti-cocaine reward effects likely through a dopamine-dependent mechanism, and therefore, deserves further study as a new pharmacotherapy for cocaine use disorder.

Wake up and smell the dopamine: new mechanisms mediating dopamine activity fluctuations related to sleep and psychostimulant sensitivity

CCB Fellow Andrew Kesner (NIAAA/NIMH) published in Neuropsychopharmacology (November 2020)

Sleep serves a crucial survival function for species across the animal kingdom. Proper sleep not only provides time for rest and metabolic recovery via glial and endocrine functioning, but also contributes critical cognitive processes like memory consolidation and mood stabilization. Indeed, as highlighted in a recent Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews Series, there is a growing consensus that most, if not all, neuropsychiatric disorders are associated with atypical sleep. Also at the center of many of these psychiatric illnesses is the neuromodulator dopamine, which, in the central nervous system (CNS), has critical roles in movement control, reward and reinforcement, and affective processes. Recent studies have also implicated dopaminergic activity in sleep and have established that dopamine levels and release in the ventral striatum fluctuate in a circadian fashion. In rodents, sleep occurs in bouts that are most prominent in the light part of the cycle, but also occur in the dark period, and thus it was not clear from these earlier studies if dopamine fluctuations were related to sleep, time of day, or both. Furthermore, sleep in rodents can be separated into rapid-eye-movement (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) phases that can be distinguished from one another and from the awake state using polysomnography. The dopamine transporter (DAT), which is responsible for removal/recovery of extracellular dopamine after release also exhibits circadian fluctuations in expression and function. However, the mechanisms underlying these diurnal changes in dopamine and DAT activity and their relationship to sleep remain unknown.

Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoids and Sleep

CCB Fellow Andrew Kesner (NIAAA/NIMH) published in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience (July 2020)


Sleep is a vital function of the nervous system that contributes to brain and bodily homeostasis, energy levels, cognitive ability, and other key functions of a variety of organisms. Dysfunctional sleep induces neural problems and is a key part of almost all human psychiatric disorders including substance abuse disorders. The hypnotic effects of cannabis have long been known and there is increasing use of phytocannabinoids and other formulations as sleep aids. Thus, it is crucial to gain a better understanding of the neurobiological basis of cannabis drug effects on sleep, as well as the role of the endogenous cannabinoid system in sleep physiology. In this review article, we summarize the current state of knowledge concerning sleep-related endogenous cannabinoid function derived from research on humans and rodent models. We also review information on acute and chronic cannabinoid drug effects on sleep in these organisms, and molecular mechanisms that may contribute to these effects. We point out the potential benefits of acute cannabinoids for sleep improvement, but also the potential sleep-disruptive effects of withdrawal following chronic cannabinoid drug use. Prescriptions for future research in this burgeoning field are also provided.

Axonal mechanisms mediating γ-aminobutyric acid receptor type A (GABA-A) inhibition of striatal dopamine release

CCB Fellow Paul Kramer (NINDS) published in eLife (September 2020)


Axons of dopaminergic neurons innervate the striatum where they contribute to movement and reinforcement learning. Past work has shown that striatal GABA tonically inhibits dopamine release, but whether GABA-A receptors directly modulate transmission or act indirectly through circuit elements is unresolved. Here, we use whole-cell and perforated-patch recordings to test for GABA-A receptors on the main dopaminergic neuron axons and branching processes within the striatum of adult mice. Application of GABA depolarized axons, but also decreased the amplitude of axonal spikes, limited propagation and reduced striatal dopamine release. The mechanism of inhibition involved sodium channel inactivation and shunting. Lastly, we show the positive allosteric modulator diazepam enhanced GABA-A currents on dopaminergic axons and directly inhibited release, but also likely acts by reducing excitation from cholinergic interneurons. Thus, we reveal the mechanisms of GABA-A receptor modulation of dopamine release and provide new insights into the actions of benzodiazepines within the striatum.

White Matter Microstructure in Pediatric Bipolar Disorder and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder

CCB Fellow Julie Linke (NIMH) published in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (October 2020)



Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) codifies severe, chronic irritability. Youths with bipolar disorder (BD) also present with irritability, but with an episodic course. To date, it is not clear whether aberrant white matter microstructure—a well-replicated finding in BD—can be observed in DMDD and relates to symptoms of irritability.


We acquired diffusion tensor imaging data from 118 participants (BD = 36, DMDD = 44, healthy volunteers (HV = 38). Images of fractional anisotropy (FA), axial diffusivity (AD), and radial diffusivity (RD) were processed with tract-based spatial statistics controlling for age and sex. The data were also used to train Gaussian process classifiers to predict diagnostic group.


In BD vs DMDD, FA in the corticospinal tract was reduced. In DMDD vs HV, reductions in FA and AD were confined to the anterior corpus callosum. In BD vs HV, widespread reductions in FA and increased RD were observed. FA in the anterior corpus callosum and corticospinal tract was negatively associated with irritability. The Gaussian process classifier could not discriminate between BD and DMDD, but achieved 68% accuracy in predicting DMDD vs HV and 75% accuracy in predicting BD vs HV.


Aberrant white matter microstructure was associated with both categorical diagnosis and the dimension of irritability. Alterations in DMDD were regionally discrete and related to reduced AD. In BD, we observed widespread increases in RD, supporting the hypothesis of altered myelination in BD. These findings will contribute to the pathophysiological understanding of DMDD and its differentiation from BD.

Brain Network Segregation and Glucose Energy Utilization: Relevance for Age-Related Differences in Cognitive Function

CCB Fellow Peter Manza (NIAAA) published in Cerebral Cortex (November 2020)


The human brain is organized into segregated networks with strong within-network connections and relatively weaker between-network connections. This “small-world” organization may be essential for maintaining an energetically efficient system, crucial to the brain which consumes 20% of the body’s energy. Brain network segregation and glucose energy utilization both change throughout the lifespan. However, it remains unclear whether these processes interact to contribute to differences in cognitive performance with age. To address this, we examined fluorodeoxyglucose-positron emission tomography and resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging from 88 participants aged 18–73 years old. Consistent with prior work, brain network segregation showed a negative association with age across both sensorimotor and association networks. However, relative glucose metabolism demonstrated an interaction with age, showing a negative slope in association networks but a positive slope in sensorimotor networks. Overall, brain networks with lower segregation showed significantly steeper age-related differences in glucose metabolism, compared with highly segregated networks. Sensorimotor network segregation mediated the association between age and poorer spatial cognition performance, and sensorimotor network metabolism mediated the association between age and slower response time. These data provide evidence that sensorimotor segregation and glucose metabolism underlie some age-related changes in cognition. Interventions that stimulate somatosensory networks could be important for treatment of age-related cognitive decline.

Control of food approach and eating by a GABAergic projection from lateral hypothalamus to dorsal pons

CCB Fellows Rosa Anna Marino (NIDA) and Stephanie Gantz (NIDA) published in PNAS (March 2020)


Stimulation of lateral hypothalamic (LH) neurons produces eating in sated animals and increases activity of dopamine neurons. The present study shows that the activation of dopamine neurons failed to induce eating. Rather, food approach and eating were observed via activation of LH fibers that project through the VTA, continuing caudally and terminating in a brainstem region medial to the locus coeruleus (LC). We found that activation of GABA neurons in this peri-LC region is both necessary and sufficient for LH stimulation-induced eating, whereas their role in normal homeostatic feeding appears negligible. These findings suggest that this circuit orchestrates just one of the multiple aspects of eating: a compulsive consumption of food in the absence of a physiological stimulus of hunger.


Electrical or optogenetic stimulation of lateral hypothalamic (LH) GABA neurons induces rapid vigorous eating in sated animals. The dopamine system has been implicated in the regulation of feeding. Previous work has suggested that a subset of LH GABA neurons projects to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and targets GABA neurons, inhibiting them and thereby disinhibiting dopaminergic activity and release. Furthermore, stimulation-induced eating is attenuated by dopamine lesions or receptor antagonists. Here we explored the involvement of dopamine in LH stimulation-induced eating. LH stimulation caused sated mice to pick up pellets of standard chow with latencies that varied based on stimulation intensity; once food was picked up, animals ate for the remainder of the 60-s stimulation period. However, lesion of VTA GABA neurons failed to disrupt this effect. Moreover, direct stimulation of VTA or substantia nigra dopamine cell bodies failed to induce food approach or eating. Looking further, we found that some LH GABA fibers pass through the VTA to more caudal sites, where they synapse onto neurons near the locus coeruleus (LC). Similar eating was induced by stimulation of LH GABA terminals or GABA cell bodies in this peri-LC region. Lesion of peri-LC GABA neurons blocked LH stimulation-induced eating, establishing them as a critical downstream circuit element for LH neurons. Surprisingly, lesions did not alter body weight, suggesting that this system is not involved in the hunger or satiety mechanisms that govern normal feeding. Thus, we present a characterization of brain circuitry that may promote overeating and contribute to obesity.

High-fat food biases hypothalamic and mesolimbic expression of consummatory drives

CCB Fellow Christopher Mazzone (NIEHS-NIDDK) published in Nature Neuroscience (August 2020)


Maintaining healthy body weight is increasingly difficult in our obesogenic environment. Dieting efforts are often overpowered by the internal drive to consume energy-dense foods. Although the selection of calorically rich substrates over healthier options is identifiable across species, the mechanisms behind this choice remain poorly understood. Using a passive devaluation paradigm, we found that exposure to high-fat diet (HFD) suppresses the intake of nutritionally balanced standard chow diet (SD) irrespective of age, sex, body mass accrual and functional leptin or melanocortin-4 receptor signaling. Longitudinal recordings revealed that this SD devaluation and subsequent shift toward HFD consumption is encoded at the level of hypothalamic agouti-related peptide neurons and mesolimbic dopamine signaling. Prior HFD consumption vastly diminished the capacity of SD to alleviate the negative valence associated with hunger and the rewarding properties of food discovery even after periods of HFD abstinence. These data reveal a neural basis behind the hardships of dieting.

Glutamatergic fast-spiking paralbumin neurons in the lateral hypothalamus: Electrophysiological properties to behavior

CCB Fellow Justin Siemian published in Physiology & Behavior (July 2020)


Throughout the central nervous system, neurons expressing the calcium-binding protein parvalbumin have been typically classified as GABAergic with fast-spiking characteristics. However, new methods that allow systematic characterization of the cytoarchitectural organization, connectivity, activity patterns, neurotransmitter nature, and function of genetically-distinct cell types have revealed populations of parvalbumin-positive neurons that are glutamatergic. Remarkably, such findings challenge longstanding concepts that fast-spiking neurons are exclusively GABAergic, suggesting conservation of the fast-spiking phenotype across at least two neurotransmitter systems. This review focuses on the recent advancements that have begun to reveal the functional roles of lateral hypothalamic parvalbumin-positive neurons in regulating behaviors essential for survival.

Improving translation of animal models of addiction and relapse by reverse translation

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro (NIDA) published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (October 2020)


Critical features of human addiction are increasingly being incorporated into complementary animal models, including escalation of drug intake, punished drug seeking and taking, intermittent drug access, choice between drug and non-drug rewards, and assessment of individual differences based on criteria in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Combined with new technologies, these models advanced our understanding of brain mechanisms of drug self-administration and relapse, but these mechanistic gains have not led to improvements in addiction treatment. This problem is not unique to addiction neuroscience, but it is an increasing source of disappointment and calls to regroup. Here we first summarize behavioural and neurobiological results from the animal models mentioned above. We then propose a reverse translational approach, whose goal is to develop models that mimic successful treatments: opioid agonist maintenance, contingency management and the community-reinforcement approach. These reverse-translated ‘treatments’ may provide an ecologically relevant platform from which to discover new circuits, test new medications and improve translation.

Abstinence-dependent dissociable central amygdala microcircuits control drug craving

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro (NIDA) published in PNAS (March 2020)


Social support promotes drug abstinence. We incorporated this cardinal feature in our community-reinforcement model using rewarding social interaction. We found that social choice-induced abstinence prevented incubation of methamphetamine craving, an effect associated with activation of PKCδ-expressing neurons in CeL and inhibition of CeM neurons. In contrast, incubation after forced abstinence was associated with activation of CeL SOM-expressing neurons and CeM neurons. Here, using novel short-hairpin RNAs, we showed that the inhibitory effect of social interaction on incubation was mediated by activation of CeL PKCδ, leading to inhibition of CeM neurons. In contrast, incubation after forced abstinence was mediated by activation of CeL SOM, leading to activation of CeM neurons. Dissociable central amygdala mechanisms mediate abstinence-dependent expression or inhibition of craving.


We recently reported that social choice-induced voluntary abstinence prevents incubation of methamphetamine craving in rats. This inhibitory effect was associated with activation of protein kinase-Cδ (PKCδ)-expressing neurons in central amygdala lateral division (CeL). In contrast, incubation of craving after forced abstinence was associated with activation of CeL-expressing somatostatin (SOM) neurons. Here we determined the causal role of CeL PKCδ and SOM in incubation using short-hairpin RNAs against PKCδ or SOM that we developed and validated. We injected two groups with shPKCδ or shCtrlPKCδ into CeL and trained them to lever press for social interaction (6 d) and then for methamphetamine infusions (12 d). We injected two other groups with shSOM or shCtrlSOM into CeL and trained them to lever press for methamphetamine infusions (12 d). We then assessed relapse to methamphetamine seeking after 1 and 15 abstinence days. Between tests, the rats underwent either social choice-induced abstinence (shPKCδ groups) or homecage forced abstinence (shSOM groups). After test day 15, we assessed PKCδ and SOM, Fos, and double-labeled expression in CeL and central amygdala medial division (CeM). shPKCδ CeL injections decreased Fos in CeL PKCδ-expressing neurons, increased Fos in CeM output neurons, and reversed the inhibitory effect of social choice-induced abstinence on incubated drug seeking on day 15. In contrast, shSOM CeL injections decreased Fos in CeL SOM-expressing neurons, decreased Fos in CeM output neurons, and decreased incubated drug seeking after 15 forced abstinence days. Our results identify dissociable central amygdala mechanisms of abstinence-dependent expression or inhibition of incubation of craving.

An operant social self-administration and choice model in rats

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro (NIDA) published in Nature Protocols (March 2020)


It is difficult to translate results from animal research on addiction to an understanding of the behavior of human drug users. Despite decades of basic research on neurobiological mechanisms of drug addiction, treatment options remain largely unchanged. A potential reason for this is that mechanistic studies using rodent models do not incorporate a critical facet of human addiction: volitional choices between drug use and non-drug social rewards (e.g., employment and family). Recently, we developed an operant model in which rats press a lever for rewarding social interaction with a peer and then choose between an addictive drug (heroin or methamphetamine) and social interaction. Using this model, we showed that rewarding social interaction suppresses drug self-administration, relapse to drug seeking, and brain responses to drug-associated cues. Here, we describe a protocol for operant social interaction using a discrete-trial choice between drugs and social interaction that causes voluntary abstinence from the drug and tests for incubation of drug craving (the time-dependent increase in drug seeking during abstinence). This protocol is flexible but generally requires 8–9 weeks for completion. We also provide a detailed description of the technical requirements and procedures for building the social self-administration and choice apparatus. Our protocol provides a reliable way to study the role of operant social reward in addiction and addiction vulnerability in the context of choices. We propose that this protocol can be used to study brain mechanisms of operant social reward and potentially impairments in social reward in animal models of psychiatric disorders and pain.



Prefrontal regulation of punished ethanol self-administration.

Collaboration of CCB Fellows Michael Authement and Patrick Piantadosi published in Biological Psychiatry (November 2019)

Background A clinical hallmark of alcohol use disorder is persistent drinking despite potential adverse consequences. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) are positioned to exert top-down control over subcortical regions, such as the nucleus accumbens shell (NAcS) and basolateral amygdala, which encode positive and negative valence of ethanol (EtOH)-related stimuli. Prior rodent studies have implicated these regions in regulation of punished EtOH self-administration (EtOH-SA).
Methods We conducted in vivo electrophysiological recordings in mouse vmPFC and dmPFC to obtain neuronal correlates of footshock-punished EtOH-SA. Ex vivo recordings were performed in NAcS D1 receptor-expressing medium spiny neurons receiving vmPFC input to examine punishment-related plasticity in this pathway. Optogenetic photosilencing was employed to assess the functional contribution of the vmPFC, dmPFC, vmPFC projections to NAcS, or vmPFC projections to basolateral amygdala, to punished EtOH-SA.
Results Punishment reduced EtOH lever pressing and elicited aborted presses (lever approach followed by rapid retraction). Neurons in the vmPFC and dmPFC exhibited phasic firing to EtOH lever presses and aborts, but only in the vmPFC was there a population-level shift in coding from lever presses to aborts with punishment. Closed-loop vmPFC, but not dmPFC, photosilencing on a postpunishment probe test negated the reduction in EtOH lever presses but not in aborts. Punishment was associated with altered plasticity at vmPFC inputs to D1 receptor-expressing medium spiny neurons in the NAcS. Photosilencing vmPFC projections to the NAcS, but not to the basolateral amygdala, partially reversed suppression of EtOH lever presses on probe testing.
Conclusions These findings demonstrate a key role for the vmPFC in regulating EtOH-SA after punishment, with implications for understanding the neural basis of compulsive drinking in alcohol use disorder.

Real-time value integration during economic choice is regulated by orbitofrontal cortex.

CCB Fellow Matthew Gardner published in Current Biology (December 2019)

Abstract: Neural correlates implicate the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in value-based or economic decision making. Yet inactivation of OFC in rats performing a rodent version of the standard economic choice task is without effect, a finding more in accord with ideas that the OFC is primarily necessary for behavior when new information must be taken into account. Neural activity in the OFC spontaneously updates to reflect new information, particularly about outcomes, and the OFC is necessary for adjustments to learned behavior only under these conditions. Here, we merge these two independent lines of research by inactivating lateral OFC during an economic choice that requires new information about the value of the predicted outcomes to be incorporated into an already established choice. Outcome value was changed by pre-feeding the rats one of two food options before testing. In control rats, this pre-feeding resulted in divergent changes in choice behavior that depended on the rats' prior preference for the pre-fed food. Optogenetic inactivation of the OFC disrupted this bi-directional effect of pre-feeding without affecting other measures that describe the underlying choice behavior. This finding unifies the role of the OFC in economic choice with its role in a host of other behaviors, causally demonstrating that the OFC is not necessary for economic choice per se-unless that choice incorporates new information about the outcomes.

Delta glutamate receptor conductance drives excitation of dorsal raphe neurons.

CCB Fellow Stephanie Gantz published on bioRxiv

Abstract: The delta glutamate receptors, GluD1R and GluD2R, are mysterious members of the ionotropic glutamate receptor family in that they are not gated by glutamate. One theory is that they are scaffolding proteins or synaptic organizers strictly, rather than ion conducting channels. Although mutant forms and wild type channels have been reported to conduct, conduction, gating, and biophysical properties of native GluD1R remain unexplored. Here we show that the inward current induced by activation of α1-adrenergic receptors (α1-ARs) in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DR) is mediated by GluD1R. Native GluD1R channels are functional ion channels that are constitutively active under basal conditions and α1-ARs increase the tonic current. This inward current is responsible for the α1-AR-dependent induction of persistent pacemaker-type firing of neurons in the DR. Given the extensive distribution of these receptors, the ionotropic nature of GluDR is proposed to be widespread in the nervous system.

Operant social reward decreases incubation of heroin craving in male and female rats.

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro published in Biological Psychiatry (December 2018)

Abstract: Background: We recently reported that operant social choice-induced voluntary abstinence prevents incubation of methamphetamine craving. Here, we determined whether social choice-induced voluntary abstinence would prevent incubation of heroin craving. We also introduce a fully automatic social reward self-administration model that eliminates the intense workload and rat-human interaction of the original semiautomatic model.
Methods: In experiment 1, we trained male and female rats for social self-administration (6 days) and then for heroin self-administration (12 days). Next, we assessed relapse to heroin seeking after 1 and 15 abstinence days. Between tests, the rats underwent either forced or social choice-induced abstinence. In experiment 2, we developed a fully automatic social self-administration procedure by introducing a screen between the self-administration chamber and the social-peer chamber; the screen allows physical contact but prevents rats from crossing chambers. Next, we compared incubation of craving in rats with a history of standard (no-screen) or automatic (screen) social self-administration and social choice-induced abstinence.
Results: The time-dependent increase in heroin seeking after cessation of drug self-administration (incubation of craving) was lower after social choice-induced abstinence than after forced abstinence. There were no differences in social self-administration, social choice-induced abstinence, and incubation of craving in rats trained in the standard semiautomatic procedure versus the novel fully automatic procedure.
Conclusions: Our study demonstrates the protective effect of rewarding social interaction on heroin self-administration and incubation of heroin craving and introduces a fully automatic social self-administration and choice procedure to investigate the role of volitional social interaction in drug addiction and other psychiatric disorders.

Circuit mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases: a new frontier with miniature microscopy.

CCB Fellow Craig Werner, a mini review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience (October 2019)

Abstract: Neurodegenerative diseases (NDDs), such as Alzheimer's disease (AD), Parkinson's disease (PD), Huntington's disease (HD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), are devastating age-associated brain disorders. Significant efforts have been made to uncover the molecular and cellular pathogenic mechanisms that underlie NDDs. However, our understanding of the neural circuit mechanisms that mediate NDDs and associated symptomatic features have been hindered by technological limitations. Our inability to identify and track individual neurons longitudinally in subcortical brain regions that are preferentially targeted in NDDs has left gaping holes in our knowledge of NDDs. Recent development and advancement of the miniature fluorescence microscope (miniscope) has opened up new avenues for examining spatially and temporally coordinated activity from hundreds of cells in deep brain structures in freely moving rodents. In the present mini-review, we examine the capabilities of current and future miniscope tools and discuss the innovative applications of miniscope imaging techniques that can push the boundaries of our understanding of neural circuit mechanisms of NDDs into new territories.

Accelerated intermittent theta-burst stimulation as a treatment for cocaine use disorder: a proof-of-concept study.

CCB Fellow Vaughn Steele, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience (October 2019)

Abstract: There are no effective treatments for cocaine use disorder (CUD), a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by dysregulated circuits related to cue reactivity, reward processing, response inhibition, and executive control. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has the potential to modulate circuits and networks implicated in neuropsychiatric disorders, including addiction. Although acute applications of TMS have reduced craving in urine-negative cocaine users, the tolerability and safety of administering accelerated TMS to cocaine-positive individuals is unknown. As such, we performed a proof-of-concept study employing an intermittent theta-burst stimulation (iTBS) protocol in an actively cocaine-using sample. Although our main goal was to assess the tolerability and safety of administering three iTBS sessions daily, we also hypothesized that iTBS would reduce cocaine use in this non-treatment seeking cohort. We recruited 19 individuals with CUD to receive three open-label iTBS sessions per day, with approximately a 60-min interval between sessions, for 10 days over a 2-week period (30 total iTBS sessions). iTBS was delivered to left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) with neuronavigation guidance. Compliance and safety were assessed throughout the trial. Cocaine use behavior was assessed before, during, and after the intervention and at 1- and 4-week follow-up visits. Of the 335 iTBS sessions applied, 73% were performed on participants with cocaine-positive urine tests. Nine of the 14 participants who initiated treatment received at least 26 of 30 iTBS sessions and returned for the 4-week follow-up visit. These individuals reduced their weekly cocaine consumption by 78% in amount of dollars spent and 70% in days of use relative to pre-iTBS cocaine use patterns. Similarly, individuals reduced their weekly consumption of nicotine, alcohol, and THC, suggesting iTBS modulated a common circuit across drugs of abuse. iTBS was well-tolerated, despite the expected occasional headaches. A single participant developed a transient neurological event of uncertain etiology on iTBS day 9 and cocaine-induced psychosis 2 weeks after discontinuation. It thus appears that accelerated iTBS to left dlPFC administered in active, chronic cocaine users is both feasible and tolerable in actively using cocaine participants with preliminary indications of efficacy in reducing both the amount and frequency of cocaine (and other off target drug) use. The neural underpinnings of these behavioral changes could help in the future development of effective treatment of CUD.

Altered cortical structure and psychiatric symptom risk in adolescents exposed to maternal stress in utero: A retrospective investigation.

CCB Fellow Valerie Darcey co-authored the publication in Behavioural Brain Research (August 2019)

Abstract: Maternal exposure to stress during pregnancy is associated with increased risk for cognitive and behavioral sequelae in offspring. Animal research demonstrates exposure to stress during gestation has effects on brain structure. In humans, however, little is known about the enduring effects of in utero exposure to maternal stress on brain morphology. We examine whether maternal report of stressful events during pregnancy is associated with brain structure and behavior in adolescents.
We compare gray matter morphometry of typically-developing early adolescents (11—14 years of age, mean 12.7) at a single timepoint, based on presence/absence of retrospectively-assessed maternal report of negative major life event stress (MLES) during pregnancy: prenatal stress (PS; n = 28), comparison group (CG; n = 55). The Drug Use Screening Inventory Revised (DUSI-R) assessed adolescent risk for problematic behaviors. Exclusionary criteria included pre-term birth, low birth weight, and maternal substance use during pregnancy. Groups were equivalent for demographic (age, sex, IQ, SES, race/ethnicity), and birth measures (weight, length).
Compared to CG peers, adolescents in the PS group exhibited increased gray matter density in bilateral posterior parietal cortex (PPC): bilateral intraparietal sulcus, left superior parietal lobule and inferior parietal lobule. Additionally, the PS group displayed greater risk for psychiatric symptoms and family system dysfunction, as assessed via DUSI-R subscales.
These preliminary findings suggest that prenatal exposure to maternal MLES may exact enduring associations on offspring brain morphology and psychiatric risk, highlighting the importance of capturing these data in prospective longitudinal research studies (beginning at birth) to elucidate these associations.

Reduced Segregation Between Cognitive and Emotional Processes in Cannabis Dependence.

CCB Alumni Peter Manza published in Cerebral Cortex (June 2019)

Abstract: Addiction is characterized by an erosion of cognitive control toward drug taking that is accentuated by negative emotional states. Here we tested the hypothesis that enhanced interference on cognitive control reflects a loss of segregation between cognition and emotion in addiction. We analyzed Human Connectome Project data from 1206 young adults, including 89 with cannabis dependence (CD). Two composite factors, one for cognition and one for emotion, were derived using principal component (PC) analyses. Component scores for these PCs were significantly associated in the CD group, such that negative emotionality correlated with poor cognition. However, the corresponding component scores were uncorrelated in matched controls and nondependent recreational cannabis users (n = 87). In CD, but not controls or recreational users, functional magnetic resonance imaging activations to emotional stimuli (angry/fearful faces > shapes) correlated with activations to cognitive demand (working memory; 2-back > 0-back). Canonical correlation analyses linked individual differences in cognitive and emotional component scores with brain activations. In CD, there was substantial overlap between cognitive and emotional brain–behavior associations, but in controls, associations were more restricted to the cognitive domain. These findings support our hypothesis of impaired segregation between cognitive and emotional processes in CD that might contribute to poor cognitive control under conditions of increased emotional demand.

Pharmacotherapy for hoarding disorder: How did the picture change since its excision from OCD?

CCB Fellow Daria Piancentino published in Current Neuropharmacology

Abstract: This brief review deals with the various issues that contributed to the creation of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual condition of hoarding disorder (HD) and attempts at reviewing its pharmacotherapy. It appears that after the newly founded diagnosis appeared in the literature as an autonomous entity, distinct from obsessive-compulsive disorder, drug trials are not being conducted and the disorder is left in the hands of psychotherapists, who on their part, report fair results in some core dimensions of HD. The few trials on HD specifically regard the serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor venlafaxine, and, possibly due to the suggestion of a common biological background of HD with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the psychostimulant methylphenidate and the noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor atomoxetine. For all these drugs, positive results have been reported, but the evidence level of these studies is low, due to small samples and non-blind designs. Regretfully, there are currently no future studies aiming at seriously testing drugs in HD.

Heightened defensive responses following subtotal lesions of macaque orbitofrontal cortex.

CCB Fellow Maia Pujara published in Journal of Neuroscience (May 2019)

Abstract: Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive attention to threat. Several brain areas, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), have been associated with threat processing, with more recent work implicating specialized roles for the medial and lateral subregions of the OFC in mediating specific symptoms of anxiety disorders. Virtually no causal work, however, has evaluated the role of these OFC subregions in regulating behavioral responses under threat. To address this gap, we compared male rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) with bilateral excitotoxic lesions restricted to either the lateral OFC (lOFC), targeting Walker's areas 11 and 13, or the medial OFC (mOFC), targeting Walker's area 14, to a group of unoperated controls on behavioral responses to the presentation of a fake rubber snake, fake spider, and neutral stimuli. Both lesion groups showed heightened defensive and reduced approach responses, accompanied by longer latencies to retrieve a food reward, in the presence of the threatening stimuli. Compared to unoperated controls, the mOFC lesion group also showed longer latencies to reach for rewards and a greater proportion of defensive responses (e.g., piloerection) in the presence of neutral stimuli. Thus, monkeys with mOFC lesions displayed a greater tendency to express defensive responses even in the absence of threat. Overall, our data reveal that both the mOFC and lOFC contribute to the attenuation of defensive responses. Notably, these findings, obtained following selective, excitotoxic lesions of the OFC, are diametrically opposed to the effects of aspiration lesions of OFC observed in macaques.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Engaging in adaptive defensive responses under threat promotes biological fitness. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) has been implicated in regulating defensive responses to threat, with distinct subregions likely playing different roles. Here we tested the effects of excitotoxic damage restricted to either the lateral or medial subdivisions of the OFC in rhesus macaques. We found significantly heightened defense and reduced approach responses to threatening stimuli in both lesion groups. While lateral OFC lesions led to an increase in defense responses to the threatening stimuli, medial OFC lesions produced increases in defense responses to both threatening and neutral stimuli. Our findings provide insights into the neural regulation of defensive responses to threat and inform the etiology and treatment of anxiety disorders in humans.

High–risk social drinkers and heavy drinkers display similar rates of alcohol consumption.

CCB Alumni Matthew Sloan published in Addiction Biology (March 2019)

Abstract: Alcohol consumption is often assessed over weeks to months, but few attempts have been made to characterize alcohol consumption rates at the level of an individual drinking session. Here, we aimed to compare the rate of alcohol consumption in social drinkers at high risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and heavy drinkers. One hundred and sixty social drinkers and 48 heavy drinkers participated in an alcohol self–administration study. Social drinkers were classified as low risk or high risk for AUD based on sex, impulsivity, and family history of alcoholism. Participants received a priming dose of intravenous alcohol to assess alcohol–induced craving and completed a 125–minute intravenous alcohol self‐administration session to assess rate of achieving a binge–level exposure (blood alcohol concentration greater than or equal to 80 mg%). There were no differences between rates of binging in high–risk and heavy drinkers (hazard ratio = 0.87; 95% CI, 0.48—1.56). Heavy drinkers reported higher levels of craving than high–risk and low–risk drinkers at baseline. However, following a priming dose of alcohol, there were no longer differences in craving between high–risk and heavy drinkers. These results indicate that high–risk social drinkers demonstrate binging behavior that is similar to heavy drinkers, which may be driven by alcohol–induced craving. Prospective studies are needed to elucidate whether these patterns of craving and consumption in high–risk social drinkers are predictive of future AUD.

Ghrelin: From a gut hormone to a potential therapeutic target for alcohol use disorder.

CCB Fellow Mehdi Farokhnia published in Physiology and Behavior (epub February 2019)

Abstract: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. However, treatment options, including pharmacotherapies, are limited in number and efficacy. Accumulating evidence suggests that elements of the gut-brain axis, such as neuroendocrine pathways and gut microbiome, are involved in the pathophysiology of AUD and, therefore, may be investigated as potential therapeutic targets. One pathway that has begun to be examined in this regard is the ghrelin system. Here, we review preclinical and clinical data on the relationship between ghrelin and alcohol-related outcomes, with a special focus on the role of the ghrelin system as a treatment target for AUD. Observational studies indicate that endogenous ghrelin levels are positively associated with craving for alcohol, subjective responses to alcohol, and brain activity in response to alcohol cues. Knockout rodent models suggest that deletion of the ghrelin peptide or receptor gene leads to reduction of alcohol intake and other alcohol-related outcomes. Different research groups have found that ghrelin administration increases, while ghrelin receptor (GHS-R1a) blockade reduces alcohol intake and other alcohol-related outcomes in rodents. Ghrelin administration in heavy-drinking individuals increases alcohol craving and self-administration and modulates brain activity in response to alcohol reward anticipation. PF-5190457, a GHS-R1a blocker, has been shown to be safe and tolerable when co-administered with alcohol. Furthermore, preliminary results suggest that this compound may reduce cue-elicited craving for alcohol in heavy-drinking individuals - a finding in need of replication. Collectively, the existing literature supports further examination of the ghrelin system as a therapeutic target for AUD. More research is also needed to understand the biobehavioral and molecular mechanisms underlying ghrelin's functions and to examine different interventional approaches to target the ghrelin system for AUD treatment.

White matter microstructure in youth with and at risk for bipolar disorder

CCB Fellow Julia Linke (NIMH) published in Bipolar Disorders (December 2019)



Bipolar disorder (BD) and familial risk for BD have been associated with aberrant white matter (WM) microstructure in the corpus callosum and fronto-limbic pathways. These abnormalities might constitute trait or state marker and have been suggested to result from aberrant maturation and to relate to difficulties in emotion regulation.


To determine whether WM alterations represent a trait, disease or resilience marker, we compared youth at risk for BD (n = 36 first-degree relatives, REL) to youth with BD (n = 36) and healthy volunteers (n = 36, HV) using diffusion tensor imaging.


Individuals with BD and REL did not differ from each other in WM microstructure and, compared to HV, showed similar aberrations in the superior corona radiata (SCR)/corticospinal tract (CST) and the body of the corpus callosum. WM microstructure of the anterior CC showed reduced age-related in-creases in BD compared to REL and HV. Further, individuals with BD and REL showed in-creased difficulties in emotion regulation, which were associated with the microstructure of the anterior thalamic radiation.


Alterations in the SCR/CST and the body of the corpus callosum appear to represent a trait marker of BD, whereas changes in other WM tracts seem to be a disease state marker. Our findings also support the role of aberrant developmental trajectories of WM microstructure in the risk architecture of BD, although longitudinal studies are needed to confirm this association. Finally, our findings show the relevance of WM microstructure for difficulties in emotion regulation—a core characteristic of BD.

Brain structural changes in cannabis dependence: association with MAGL

CCB Fellow Peter Manza (NIAAA) published in Molecular Psychiatry (November 2019)


Cannabis use is rising, yet there is poor understanding of biological processes that might link chronic cannabis use to brain structural abnormalities. To lend insight into this topic, we examined white matter microstructural integrity and gray matter cortical thickness/density differences between 89 individuals with cannabis dependence (CD) and 89 matched controls (64 males, 25 females in each group) from the Human Connectome Project. We tested whether cortical patterns for expression of genes relevant for cannabinoid signaling (from Allen Human Brain Atlas postmortem tissue) were associated with spatial patterns of cortical thickness/density differences in CD. CD had lower fractional anisotropy than controls in white matter bundles innervating posterior cingulate and parietal cortex, basal ganglia, and temporal cortex. The CD group also had significantly less gray matter thickness and density in precuneus, relative to controls. Sibling-pair analysis found support for causal and graded liability effects of cannabis on precuneus structure. Spatial patterns of gray matter differences in CD were significantly associated with regional differences in monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) expression in postmortem brain tissue, such that regions with higher MAGL expression (but not fatty-acid amide hydrolase or FAAH) were more vulnerable to cortical thinning. In sum, chronic cannabis use is associated with structural differences in white and gray matter, which was most prominent in precuneus and associated white matter tracts. Regions with high MAGL expression, and therefore with potentially physiologically restricted endogenous cannabinoid signaling, may be more vulnerable to the effects of chronic cannabis use on cortical thickness.



D1 receptor hypersensitivity in mice with low striatal D2 receptors facilitates select cocaine behaviors.

CCB Fellow Lauren Dobbs published in Neuropsychopharmacology (epub December 2018)

Abstract: Vulnerability for cocaine abuse in humans is associated with low dopamine D2 receptor (D2R) availability in the striatum. The mechanisms driving this vulnerability are poorly understood. In this study, we found that downregulating D2R expression selectively in striatal indirect-pathway neurons triggers a multitude of changes in D1 receptors (D1R)-expressing direct-pathway neurons, which comprise the other main subpopulation of striatal projection neurons. These changes include a leftward shift in the dose response to D1-like agonist that indicates a behavioral D1R hypersensitivity, a shift from PKA to ERK intracellular signaling cascades upon D1R activation, and a reduction in the density of bridging collaterals from D1R-expressing neurons to pallidal areas. We hypothesize that the D1R hypersensitivity underlies abuse vulnerability by facilitating the behavioral responses to repeated cocaine, such as locomotor sensitization and drugs self-administration. We found evidence that littermate control mice develop D1R hypersensitivity after they are sensitized to cocaine. Indeed, D1-like agonist and cocaine cross-sensitize in control littermates and this effect was potentiated in mice lacking striatal D2Rs from indirect pathway neurons. To our surprise, mice with low striatal D2Rs acquired cocaine self-administration similarly to littermate controls and showed no significant change in motivation to take cocaine but lower seeking. These findings indicate that downregulation of striatal D2Rs triggers D1R hypersensitivity to facilitate cocaine locomotor sensitization, which by itself was not associated with greater cocaine taking or seeking under the conditions tested.

A competitive model for striatal action selection.

CCB Fellow Wambura Fobbs published in Brain Research (October 2018)

Abstract: The direct and indirect pathway striatal medium spiny neurons (dMSNs and iMSNs) have long been linked to action selection, but the precise roles of these neurons in this process remain unclear. Here, we review different models of striatal pathway function, focusing on the classic “go/no-go” model which posits that dMSNs facilitate movement while iMSNs inhibit movement, and the “complementary” model, which argues that dMSNs facilitate the selection of specific actions while iMSNs inhibit potentially conflicting actions. We discuss the merits and shortcomings of these models and propose a “competitive” model to explain the contribution of these two pathways to behavior. The “competitive” model argues that rather than inhibiting conflicting actions, iMSNs are tuned to the same actions that dMSNs facilitate, and the two populations “compete” to determine the animal’s behavioral response. This model provides a theoretical explanation for how these pathways work together to select actions. In addition, it provides a link between action selection and behavioral reinforcement, via modulating synaptic strength at inputs onto dMSNs and iMSNs. Finally, this model makes predictions about how imbalances in the activity of these pathways may underlie behavioral traits associated with psychiatric disorders. Understanding the roles of these striatal pathways in action selection may help to clarify the neuronal mechanisms of decision-making under normal and pathological conditions.

Volitional social interaction prevents drug addiction in rat models.

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro published in Nature Neuroscience (October 2018)

Abstract: Addiction treatment has not been appreciably improved by neuroscientific research. One problem is that mechanistic studies using rodent models do not incorporate volitional social factors, which play a critical role in human addiction. Here, using rats, we introduce an operant model of choice between drugs and social interaction. Independent of sex, drug class, drug dose, training conditions, abstinence duration, social housing, or addiction score in Diagnostic & Statistical Manual IV-based and intermittent access models, operant social reward prevented drug self-administration. This protection was lessened by delay or punishment of the social reward but neither measure was correlated with the addiction score. Social-choice-induced abstinence also prevented incubation of methamphetamine craving. This protective effect was associated with activation of central amygdala PKCδ-expressing inhibitory neurons and inhibition of anterior insular cortex activity. These findings highlight the need for incorporating social factors into neuroscience-based addiction research and support the wider implantation of socially based addiction treatments.

Novel models of drug relapse and craving after voluntary abstinence.

CCB Fellow Marco Venniro published in Neuropsychopharmacology (September 2018)

Abstract: Researchers introduced two novel models of choice-based voluntary abstinence and demonstrated the profound protective effects of positive social interaction on drug addiction and relapse in rat models. Findings support wider implementation of social-based behavioral treatments, which include not only the established community reinforcement approach, but also social-based psychotherapies and family-based social support systems to provide social support before and during drug-seeking episodes.

Why Do Mice Overeat High-Fat Diets? How High-Fat Diet Alters the Regulation of Daily Caloric Intake in Mice.

CCB Fellow Wambura Fobbs published in Obesity (Silver Spring) (June 2018)

OBJECTIVE: Ad libitum high-fat diets (HFDs) spontaneously increase caloric intake in rodents, which correlates positively with weight gain. However, it remains unclear why rodents overeat HFDs. This paper investigated how changing the proportion of diet that came from HFDs might alter daily caloric intake in mice.

METHODS: Mice were given 25%, 50%, or 90% of their daily caloric need from an HFD, along with ad libitum access to a low-fat rodent chow diet. Food intake was measured daily to determine how these HFD supplements impacted total daily caloric intake. Follow-up experiments addressed the timing of HFD feeding.

RESULTS: HFD supplements did not alter total caloric intake or body weight. In a follow-up experiment, mice consumed approximately 50% of their daily caloric need from an HFD in 30 minutes during the light cycle, a time when mice do not normally consume food.

CONCLUSIONS: An HFD did not disrupt regulation of total daily caloric intake, even when up to 90% of total calories came from the HFD. However, HFDs increased daily caloric intake when provided ad libitum and were readily consumed by mice outside of their normal feeding cycle. Ad libitum HFDs appear to induce overconsumption beyond the mechanisms that regulate daily caloric intake.

A deeper insight into how GABA-B receptor agonism via baclofen may affect alcohol seeking and consumption: lessons learned from a human laboratory investigation

CCB Fellow Mehdi Farokhnia (NIAAA) published in Molecular Psychiatry (October 2018)


Previous studies suggest that GABA-B receptor agonism may represent an effective pharmacological approach to treat addictive disorders. Baclofen is a selective GABA-B receptor agonist which has been investigated as a potential treatment for alcohol use disorder. However, research is needed to understand the biobehavioral mechanisms underlying baclofen’s effect on alcohol use. In the present randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, thirty-four alcohol-dependent individuals were randomized to receive baclofen (30mg/d) or placebo for a week, and then participated in a laboratory experiment consisting of three procedures: alcohol cue-reactivity, priming, and self-administration. During the experiment, craving and other subjective responses to alcohol were assessed, and blood samples were collected for pharmacokinetic measurements. The effects of baclofen on the relationships between different alcohol-related laboratory parameters were investigated. Baclofen pharmacokinetic parameters and their correlations with behavioral measures were also examined. Results showed that baclofen disrupted the link between alcohol priming and self-administration, as indicated by significant interaction effects between drug condition (baclofen vs. placebo) and some of the priming variables (alcohol craving: F3,9=6.03, p=0.01; alcohol sedation: F3,6=7.16, p=0.01) on the total amount of alcohol self-administered. Considerable interindividual variability in baclofen pharmacokinetic parameters was observed. Maximum plasma concentrations of baclofen negatively correlated with cue-induced alcohol craving (r=−0.57, p=0.03) and priming-induced ratings of ‘like more’ (r=−0.59, p=0.02). In conclusion, baclofen may work by dissociating the link between an initial drink (priming) and subsequent alcohol consumption (self-administration). Considerable pharmacokinetic variability is an important factor to take into account when employing baclofen as a treatment for alcohol use disorder.