Environmental enrichment counters cocaine abstinence-induced stress and brain reactivity to cocaine cues but fails to prevent the incubation effect


Janet L. Neisewander, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, PO Box 874501, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501, USA. E-mail: janet.neisewander@asu.edu


Environmental enrichment (EE) during a period of forced abstinence attenuates incentive motivational effects of cocaine-paired stimuli. Here we examined whether EE during forced abstinence from cocaine self-administration would prevent time-dependent increases in cue-elicited cocaine-seeking behavior (i.e. the incubation effect). Rats were trained to self-administer cocaine, which was paired with light/tone cues, for 15 days while living in isolated conditions (IC). Controls received yoked saline infusions. Subsequently, rats were assigned to live in either continued IC or EE for either 1 or 21 days of forced abstinence prior to a test for cocaine-seeking behavior. During testing, responding resulted only in presentation of the light/tone cues. Contrary to our prediction, cocaine-seeking behavior increased over time regardless of living condition during abstinence; however, EE attenuated cocaine-seeking behavior relative to IC regardless of length of abstinence. Brains were harvested and trunk blood was collected immediately after the 60-minute test and later assayed. Results indicated that short-term EE elevated hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor and reduced plasma corticosterone compared with IC. Furthermore, 21 days of EE during forced abstinence prevented increases in the cue-elicited amygdala phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase expression that was observed in IC rats. These findings suggest that EE attenuates incentive motivational effects of cocaine cues through a mechanism other than preventing the incubation effect, perhaps involving reduction of stress and neural activity in response to cocaine-paired cues during acute withdrawal.