J. Neurochem. (2010) 112, 1327–1337.
Chronic nicotine self-administration augments the thalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responses to stress. Altered neuropeptide expression within corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) contributes to this enhanced HPA response to stress. Herein, we determined the role of norepinephrine, a primary regulator of CRF neurons, in the responses to footshock during nicotine self-administration. On day 12–15 of self-administration, microdialysis showed nicotine reduced PVN norepinephrine release by footshock (< 50% of saline). Yet, the reduction in footshock-induced adrenocorticotropic hormone and corticosterone secretion because of intra-PVN prazosin (α1 adrenergic antagonist) was significantly greater in rats self-administering nicotine (2-fold) than saline. Additionally, PVN phenylephrine (α1 agonist) stimulated adrenocorticotropic hormone and corticosterone release to a similar extent in unstressed rats self-administering nicotine or saline. Nicotine self-administration also decreased footshock-induced c-Fos expression in the nucleus of the solitary tract-A2/C2 catecholaminergic neurons that project to the PVN. Therefore, footshock-induced nucleus of the solitary tract activation and PVN norepinephrine input are both attenuated by nicotine self-administration, yet PVN CRF neurons are more responsive to α1 stimulation, but only during stress. This plasticity in noradrenergic regulation of PVN CRF neurons provides a new mechanism contributing to the HPA sensitization to stress by nicotine self-administration and smoking.