The hypothalamus is a critical controller of homeostatic responses and plays a fundamental role in reward-seeking behaviour. Recently, hypothalamic neurones in the perifornical/lateral hypothalamic area (PF/LHA) have also been implicated in drug-seeking behaviour through projections to extra-hypothalamic sites such as the ventral tegmental area. For example, a population of neurones that expresses the peptide orexin has been strongly implicated in addiction-relevant behaviours. To date, the effect of addictive drugs on synaptic properties in the hypothalamus remains largely unexplored. Previous studies focusing on the PF/LHA neurones, however, have shown that the orexin system exhibits significant plasticity in response to food or sleep restriction. This neuroadaptive ability suggests that PF/LHA neurones could be highly susceptible to modifications by drug exposure. Here, we sought to determine whether cocaine produces synaptic plasticity in PF/LHA neurones. Whole-cell patch-clamp techniques were used to examine the effects of experimenter-administered (passive) or self-administered (SA) cocaine on glutamatergic synaptic transmission in PF/LHA neurones. These experiments demonstrate that both passive and SA cocaine exposure increases miniature excitatory postsynaptic current (mEPSC) frequency in PF/LHA neurones. In addition, SA cocaine reduced the paired-pulse ratio but the AMPA/NMDA ratio of evoked excitatory inputs was unchanged, indicative of a presynaptic locus for synaptic plasticity. Dual-labelling for orexin and excitatory inputs using the vesicular glutamate transporter (VGLUT2), showed that passive cocaine exposure increased VGLUT2-positive appositions onto orexin neurones. Further, a population of recorded neurones that were filled with neurobiotin and immunolabelled for orexin confirmed that increased excitatory drive occurs in this PF/LHA population. Given the importance of the PF/LHA and the orexin system in modulating drug addiction, we suggest that these cocaine-induced excitatory synapse-remodelling events within the hypothalamus may contribute to persistence in drug-seeking behaviour and relapse.
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