The molecular mechanisms underlying stress- and drug-induced neuronal adaptations are incompletely understood. One molecule implicated in such adaptations is ΔFosB, a transcription factor that accumulates in the rodent nucleus accumbens (NAc), a key brain reward region, in response to either chronic stress or repeated exposure to drugs of abuse. The upstream transcriptional mechanisms controlling ΔFosB induction by these environmental stimuli remain elusive. Here, we identify the activity-dependent transcription factor, serum response factor (SRF), as a novel upstream mediator of stress-, but not cocaine-, induced ΔFosB. SRF is downregulated in NAc of both depressed human patients and in mice chronically exposed to social defeat stress. This downregulation of SRF is absent in resilient animals. Through the use of inducible mutagenesis, we show that stress-mediated induction of ΔFosB, which occurs predominantly in resilient mice, is dependent on SRF expression in this brain region. Furthermore, NAc-specific genetic deletion of SRF promotes a variety of prodepressant- and proanxiety-like phenotypes and renders animals more sensitive to the deleterious effects of chronic stress. In contrast, we demonstrate that SRF does not play a role in ΔFosB accumulation in NAc in response to chronic cocaine exposure. Furthermore, NAc-specific knock-out of SRF has no effect on cocaine-induced behaviors, indicating that chronic social defeat stress and repeated cocaine exposure regulate ΔFosB accumulation and behavioral sensitivity through independent mechanisms.
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