Neuroplasticity, axonal guidance and micro-RNA genes are associated with morphine self-administration behavior


Correspondence to: Greg I. Elmer, Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, Department of Psychiatry, University of Maryland, Maple and Locust Street, Catonsville, MD 21228, USA. E-mail:, or Norman H. Lee, Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, The George Washington University Medical Center, 2300 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037, USA. E-mail:


Neuroadaptations in the ventral striatum (VS) and ventral midbrain (VMB) following chronic opioid administration are thought to contribute to the pathogenesis and persistence of opiate addiction. In order to identify candidate genes involved in these neuroadaptations, we utilized a behavior-genetics strategy designed to associate contingent intravenous drug self-administration with specific patterns of gene expression in inbred mice differentially predisposed to the rewarding effects of morphine. In a Yoked-control paradigm, C57BL/6J mice showed clear morphine-reinforced behavior, whereas DBA/2J mice did not. Moreover, the Yoked-control paradigm revealed the powerful consequences of self-administration versus passive administration at the level of gene expression. Morphine self-administration in the C57BL/6J mice uniquely up- or down-regulated 237 genes in the VS and 131 genes in the VMB. Interestingly, only a handful of the C57BL/6J self-administration genes (<3%) exhibited a similar expression pattern in the DBA/2J mice. Hence, specific sets of genes could be confidently assigned to regional effects of morphine in a contingent- and genotype-dependent manner. Bioinformatics analysis revealed that neuroplasticity, axonal guidance and micro-RNAs (miRNAs) were among the key themes associated with drug self-administration. Noteworthy were the primary miRNA genes H19 and micro-RNA containing gene (Mirg), processed, respectively, to mature miRNAs miR-675 and miR-154, because they are prime candidates to mediate network-like changes in responses to chronic drug administration. These miRNAs have postulated roles in dopaminergic neuron differentiation and mu-opioid receptor regulation. The strategic approach designed to focus on reinforcement-associated genes provides new insight into the role of neuroplasticity pathways and miRNAs in drug addiction.