Ventral tegmental area glutamate neurons establish a mu-opioid receptor gated circuit to mesolimbic dopamine neurons and regulate opioid-seeking behavior

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology




A two-neuron model of ventral tegmental area (VTA) opioid function classically involves VTA GABA neuron regulation of VTA dopamine neurons via a mu-opioid receptor dependent inhibitory circuit. However, this model predates the discovery of a third major type of neuron in the VTA: glutamatergic neurons. We found that about one-quarter of VTA neurons expressing the mu-opioid receptor are glutamate neurons without molecular markers of GABA co-release. Glutamate-Mu opioid receptor neurons are largely distributed in the anterior VTA. The majority of remaining VTA mu-opioid receptor neurons are GABAergic neurons that are mostly within the posterior VTA and do not express molecular markers of glutamate co-release. Optogenetic stimulation of VTA glutamate neurons resulted in excitatory currents recorded from VTA dopamine neurons that were reduced by presynaptic activation of the mu-opioid receptor ex vivo, establishing a local mu-opioid receptor dependent excitatory circuit from VTA glutamate neurons to VTA dopamine neurons. This VTA glutamate to VTA dopamine pathway regulated dopamine release to the nucleus accumbens through mu-opioid receptor activity in vivo. Behaviorally, VTA glutamate calcium-related neuronal activity increased following oral oxycodone consumption during self-administration and response-contingent oxycodone-associated cues during abstinent reinstatement of drug-seeking behavior. Further, chemogenetic inhibition of VTA glutamate neurons reduced abstinent oral oxycodone-seeking behavior in male but not female mice. These results establish 1) a three-neuron model of VTA opioid function involving a mu-opioid receptor gated VTA glutamate neuron pathway to VTA dopamine neurons that controls dopamine release within the nucleus accumbens, and 2) that VTA glutamate neurons participate in opioid-seeking behavior.


Pharmacology and Physiology