Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, School of Biological Sciences University of California, Irvine, USA; UC Irvine Center for Addiction Neuroscience, School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine, USA; Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
Propensity to relapse following long periods of abstinence is a key feature of substance use disorder. Drugs of abuse, such as cocaine, cause long-term changes in the neural circuitry regulating reward, motivation, and memory processes through dysregulation of various molecular mechanisms, including epigenetic regulation of activity-dependent gene expression. Underlying drug-induced changes to neural circuit function are the molecular mechanisms regulating activity-dependent gene expression. Of note, histone acetyltransferases and histone deacetylases (HDACs), powerful epigenetic regulators of gene expression, are dysregulated following both acute and chronic cocaine exposure and are linked to cocaine-induced changes in neural circuit function. To better understand the effect of drug-induced changes on epigenetic function and behavior, we investigated HDAC3-mediated regulation of Nr4a2/Nurr1 in the medial habenula, an understudied pathway in cocaine-associated behaviors. Nr4a2, a transcription factor critical in cocaine-associated behaviors and necessary for MHb development, is enriched in the cholinergic cell-population of the MHb; yet, the role of NR4A2 within the MHb in the adult brain remains elusive. Here, we evaluated whether epigenetic regulation of Nr4a2 in the MHb has a role in reinstatement of cocaine-associated behaviors. We found that HDAC3 disengages from Nr4a2 in the MHb in response to cocaine-primed reinstatement. Whereas enhancing HDAC3 function in the MHb had no effect on reinstatement, we found, using a dominant-negative splice variant (NURR2C), that loss of NR4A2 function in the MHb blocked reinstatement behaviors. These results show for the first time that regulation of NR4A2 function in the MHb is critical in relapse-like behaviors.