Heroin seeking becomes dependent on dorsal striatal dopaminergic mechanisms and can be decreased by N-acetylcysteine.
The alarming increase in heroin overdoses in the USA is a reminder of the need for efficacious and novel treatments for opiate addiction. This may reflect the relatively poor understanding of the neural basis of heroin, as compared to cocaine, seeking behaviour. While cocaine reinforcement depends on the mesolimbic system, well-established cocaine seeking is dependent on dorsolateral striatum (aDLS) dopamine-dependent mechanisms which are disrupted by N-acetylcysteine, through normalisation of corticostriatal glutamate homeostasis. However, it is unknown whether a functional recruitment of aDLS dopamine-dependent control over instrumental responding also occurs for heroin seeking, even though heroin reinforcement does not depend on the mesolimbic dopamine system. Lister Hooded rats acquired heroin self-administration and were subsequently trained to seek heroin daily over prolonged periods of time under the control of drug-paired cues, as measured under a second-order schedule of reinforcement. At different stages of training, that is, early on and when heroin seeking behaviour was well established, we measured the sensitivity of drug-seeking responses to either bilateral aDLS infusions of the dopamine receptor antagonist α-flupenthixol (5, 10 and 15 μg/side) or systemic administration of N-acetylcysteine (30, 60 and 90 mg/kg). The results demonstrate that control over heroin seeking behaviour devolves to aDLS dopamine-dependent mechanisms after extended training. Further aDLS-dependent well-established, cue-controlled heroin seeking was disrupted by N-acetylcysteine. Comparison with previous data on cocaine suggests that the development of drug seeking habits and the alteration of corticostriatal glutamate homeostasis, which is restored by N-acetylcysteine, are quantitatively similar between heroin and cocaine.