The nucleus accumbens, a site within the ventral striatum, is best known for its prominent role in mediating the reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse such as cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. Indeed, it is generally believed that this structure subserves motivated behaviors, such as feeding, drinking, sexual behavior, and exploratory locomotion, which are elicited by natural rewards or incentive stimuli. A basic rule of positive reinforcement is that motor responses will increase in magnitude and vigor if followed by a rewarding event. It is likely, therefore, that the nucleus accumbens may serve as a substrate for reinforcement learning. However, there is surprisingly little information concerning the neural mechanisms by which appetitive responses are learned. In the present study, we report that treatment of the nucleus accumbens core with the selective competitive N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist 2-amino-5-phosphonopentanoic acid (AP-5; 5 nmol/0.5 μl bilaterally) impairs response-reinforcement learning in the acquisition of a simple lever-press task to obtain food. Once the rats learned the task, AP-5 had no effect, demonstrating the requirement of NMDA receptor-dependent plasticity in the early stages of learning. Infusion of AP-5 into the accumbens shell produced a much smaller impairment of learning. Additional experiments showed that AP-5 core-treated rats had normal feeding and locomotor responses and were capable of acquiring stimulus-reward associations. We hypothesize that stimulation of NMDA receptors within the accumbens core is a key process through which motor responses become established in response to reinforcing stimuli. Further, this mechanism, may also play a critical role in the motivational and addictive properties of drugs of abuse
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