The motivation to seek out rewards can come under the control of stimuli associated with reward delivery. The ability of cues to motivate reward-seeking behavior depends on the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). The molecular mechanisms in the NAcc that underlie the ability of a cue to motivate reward-seeking are not well understood. We examined whether extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), an important intracellular signaling pathway in learning and memory, has a role in these motivational processes. We first examined p42 ERK (ERK2) activation in the NAcc after rats were trained to associate an auditory stimulus with food delivery and found that, as a consequence of training, presentation of the auditory cue itself was sufficient to increase ERK2 activation in the NAcc. To examine whether inhibition of ERK in the NAcc prevents cue-induced reward-seeking, we infused an inhibitor of ERK, U0126, into the NAcc before assessing rats' instrumental responding in the presence versus absence of the conditioned cue. We found that, whereas vehicle-infused rats showed increased instrumental responding during cue presentation, rats infused with U0126 showed a profound impairment in cue-induced instrumental responding. In contrast, intra-NAcc U0126 infusion had no effect on rats' food-reinforced instrumental responding or their ability to execute conditioned approach behavior. Our results demonstrate learning-related changes in ERK signaling in the NAcc, and that disruption of ERK activation in this structure interferes with the incentive-motivational effects of conditioned stimuli. The molecular mechanisms described here may have implications for cue-elicited drug craving after repeated exposure to drugs of abuse.
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