Repeated exposure to cocaine causes sensitized behavioral responses and increased dendritic spines on medium spiny neurons of the nucleus accumbens (NAc). We find that cocaine regulates myocyte enhancer factor 2 (MEF2) transcription factors to control these two processes in vivo. Cocaine suppresses striatal MEF2 activity in part through a mechanism involving cAMP, the regulator of calmodulin signaling (RCS), and calcineurin. We show that reducing MEF2 activity in the NAc in vivo is required for the cocaine-induced increases in dendritic spine density. Surprisingly, we find that increasing MEF2 activity in the NAc, which blocks the cocaine-induced increase in dendritic spine density, enhances sensitized behavioral responses to cocaine. Together, our findings implicate MEF2 as a key regulator of structural synapse plasticity and sensitized responses to cocaine and suggest that reducing MEF2 activity (and increasing spine density) in NAc may be a compensatory mechanism to limit long-lasting maladaptive behavioral responses to cocaine.
ASJC Scopus subject areas