En español



Quick Links

Disruption of Serotonin Contributes to Cocaine’s Effects

February 05, 2019
By Eric Sarlin, M.Ed., M.A., NIDA Notes Contributing Writer

This research:

  • Traced the effects of cocaine-induced disruption of serotonin regulation in the ventral pallidum and orbitofrontal cortex.
  • Suggests that these effects may contribute to drug-seeking and cocaine-associated cognitive impairments.

Cocaine causes addiction and cognitive deficits, resulting in uncontrolled use of the drug and impaired decision making. New NIDA-supported research suggests that the drug may produce these problems in part by disrupting regulation of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Cocaine blocks the transporters for dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, causing increases in extracellular levels of these neurotransmitters. Sharp spikes in extracellular dopamine, particularly in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) reward center, account for much of the drug's reinforcing and addicting effects. The new studies suggest that increased extracellular serotonin in the ventral pallidum (VP) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) also may contribute to reward and may underlie cognitive deficits observed in users of the drug.

The VP: Reward and Craving

Dr. Aya Matsui of the Intramural Research Program (IRP) of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Dr. Veronica Alvarez of NIDA's IRP investigated cocaine-induced alteration of serotonin in the VP. Their findings suggest that cocaine-induced increases in serotonin in the VP could weaken one’s ability to curb impulsive behaviors.

The VP participates in a circuit in the basal ganglia that converts the anticipation of rewards into action. It receives gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter input from the NAc reward center via two distinct pathways and relays it forward, ultimately to the motor cortex. GABA transmission via the "direct" pathway excites basal ganglia output; via the "indirect" pathway, it inhibits basal ganglia output. The relative strength of GABA transmission in the two pathways determines whether neurons in the motor cortex will be sufficiently excited to initiate movement.

Dr. Alvarez and Dr. Matsui exposed mouse VP tissue to cocaine and tracked the effects on serotonin and GABA with electrophysiology, voltammetry, and immunofluorescence techniques. The cocaine-induced increase in serotonin levels reduces NAc GABA neurotransmission to the VP via the indirect pathway, but not the direct pathway (see Figure). As the direct pathway was unaffected while the indirect was reduced, the relative influence of the direct pathway increased.

The IRP researchers surmise that the cocaine-induced increase in the influence of the direct pathway might amplify the drug's rewarding effects. As well, it could prime motor cortex neurons to respond more readily to drug craving and thereby increase the difficulty of resisting craving.

See text descriptionFigure. Cocaine Alters Serotonin Signaling in the Ventral Pallidum (VP) To Increase Overall Basal Ganglia Output GABA-releasing neurons from the nucleus accumbens (NAc) to the VP influence the activity of VP neurons via two pathways. GABA release by NAc neurons in the direct pathway promotes VP neuron activity, whereas GABA release by NAc neurons in the indirect pathway inhibits VP neuron activity. The balance of both pathways determines overall basal ganglia output to the motor cortex. Serotonin released in the VP by serotonin-releasing neurons is normally directly taken back up into the releasing cells via a serotonin transporter. Cocaine blocks the serotonin transporter, resulting in elevated serotonin levels in the VP. Serotonin binds to 5HT1B receptors only on the NAc neurons of the indirect pathway, reducing their GABA release. As result, overall basal ganglia output to the motor cortex is increased.
Text Description of Graphic

The OFC: Cognitive Flexibility

Dr. Andrew Wright, a graduate student in the NIH Graduate Partnership Program with Brown University; Dr. Carl Lupica; and colleagues at NIDA’s IRP measured serotonin’s effects on neuronal activity in tissue from the OFC of drug-free rats and rats that had been exposed to cocaine for 12 days and then maintained without the drug for 11 to 73 days. They found that treating OFC tissue with serotonin overall inhibited neuronal activity in the drug-free animals but increased it in those with a history of cocaine exposure and withdrawal. The difference reflected changes in how two serotonin receptors, 5-HT1A and 5-HT1B, responded to the neurotransmitter in the drug-free versus the exposed and withdrawn animals.

Neurons in the OFC monitor the many alternative courses of action available to an animal or a person at each moment, together with estimates of their potential risks and rewards. A well-functioning OFC helps one identify and select actions that advance one’s primary goals. Disruption here can impair one’s ability to learn from experience and adjust one's behavior to fit changing circumstances. Based on the new findings, Dr. Lupica says, "The lack of cognitive flexibility and impaired reasoning seen in people addicted to cocaine may result from long-term disruption of serotonin system function."

Potential Pharmacotherapies for Cocaine Use Disorder?

The two studies indicate that cocaine exerts its reinforcing effects and causes cognitive impairment not only by interfering with dopamine regulation but also by altering serotonin regulation in the brain. Both research teams hope that their findings can inform future research into pharmacotherapies for cocaine use disorder and believe that effective treatments should target multiple neuronal pathways.

Dr. Alvarez says, "We reason that an effective therapy for cocaine addiction should take into account the serotonin actions of cocaine. Treatments will have to account for the inhibition of GABA transmission, which is mediated by dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and by serotonin in the ventral pallidum."


Matsui, A. and Alvarez, V.A. Cocaine inhibition of synaptic transmission in the ventral pallidum is pathway-specific and mediated by serotonin. Cell Reports 23(13):3852-3863, 2018.

Wright, A.M., Zapata, A., Baumann, M.H., et al. Enduring loss of serotonergic control of orbitofrontal cortex function following contingent and noncontingent cocaine exposure. Cerebral Cortex 27(12):5463-5476, 2017.

Receive articles like this in your inbox monthly!
You will only receive messages related to NIDA Notes

This page was last updated February 2019

NIDA Notes


Drug Topics

Drugs of Abuse

Population Groups

Related Topics

Get this Publication

    Cite this article

    NIDA. (2019, February 5). Disruption of Serotonin Contributes to Cocaine’s Effects. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2019/02/disruption-serotonin-contributes-to-cocaines-effects

    press ctrl+c to copy
    NIDA Notes
    Receive NIDA Notes Articles in your Email!
    You will only receive messages related to NIDA Notes