Social defeat disrupts reward learning and potentiates striatal nociceptin/orphanin FQ mRNA in rats

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Rationale: Mood disorders can be triggered by stress and are characterized by deficits in reward processing, including disrupted reward learning (the ability to modulate behavior according to past rewards). Reward learning is regulated by the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and striatal circuits, both of which are implicated in the pathophysiology of mood disorders. Objectives: Here, we assessed in rats the effects of a potent stressor (social defeat) on reward learning and gene expression in the ACC, ventral tegmental area (VTA), and striatum. Methods: Adult male Wistar rats were trained on an operant probabilistic reward task (PRT) and then exposed to 3 days of social defeat before assessment of reward learning. After testing, the ACC, VTA, and striatum were dissected, and expression of genes previously implicated in stress was assessed. Result: Social defeat blunted reward learning (manifested as reduced response bias toward a more frequently rewarded stimulus) and was associated with increased nociceptin/orphanin FQ (N/OFQ) peptide mRNA levels in the striatum and decreased Fos mRNA levels in the VTA. Moreover, N/OFQ peptide and nociceptin receptor mRNA levels in the ACC, VTA and striatum were inversely related to reward learning. Conclusions: The behavioral findings parallel previous data in humans, suggesting that stress similarly disrupts reward learning in both species. Increased striatal N/OFQ mRNA in stressed rats characterized by impaired reward learning is consistent with accumulating evidence that antagonism of nociceptin receptors, which bind N/OFQ, has antidepressant-like effects. These results raise the possibility that nociceptin systems represent a molecular substrate through which stress produces reward learning deficits in mood disorders.

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