Extracellular Signal-Regulated Kinase-2 within the Ventral Tegmental Area Regulates Responses to Stress

Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306-4301, USA.
The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 6.75). 06/2010; 30(22):7652-63. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0951-10.2010
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Neurotrophic factors and their signaling pathways have been implicated in the neurobiological adaptations in response to stress and the regulation of mood-related behaviors. A candidate signaling molecule implicated in mediating these cellular responses is the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK1/2), although its functional role in mood regulation remains to be fully elucidated. Here we show that acute (1 d) or chronic (4 weeks) exposure to unpredictable stress increases phosphorylation of ERK1/2 and of two downstream targets (ribosomal S6 kinase and mitogen- and stress-activated protein kinase 1) within the ventral tegmental area (VTA), an important substrate for motivated behavior and mood regulation. Using herpes simplex virus-mediated gene transfer to assess the functional significance of this ERK induction, we show that overexpressing ERK2 within the VTA increases susceptibility to stress as measured in the forced swim test, responses to unconditioned nociceptive stimuli, and elevated plus maze in Sprague Dawley male rats, and in the tail suspension test and chronic social defeat stress procedure in C57BL/6 male mice. In contrast, blocking ERK2 activity in the VTA produces stress-resistant behavioral responses in these same assays and also blocks a chronic stress-induced reduction in sucrose preference. The effects induced by ERK2 blockade were accompanied by decreases in the firing frequency of VTA dopamine neurons, an important electrophysiological hallmark of resilient-like behavior. Together, these results strongly implicate a role for ERK2 signaling in the VTA as a key modulator of responsiveness to stress and mood-related behaviors.

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