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Diazepam actions in the VTA enhance social dominance and mitochondrial function in the nucleus accumbens by activation of dopamine D1 receptors.
Benzodiazepines can ameliorate social disturbances and increase social competition, particularly in high-anxious individuals. However, the neural circuits and mechanisms underlying benzodiazepines' effects in social competition are not understood. Converging evidence points to the mesolimbic system as a potential site of action for at least some benzodiazepine-mediated effects. Furthermore, mitochondrial function in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) has been causally implicated in the link between anxiety and social competitiveness. Here, we show that diazepam facilitates social dominance, ameliorating both the competitive disadvantage and low NAc mitochondrial function displayed by high-anxious rats, and identify the ventral tegmental area (VTA) as a key site of action for direct diazepam effects. We also show that intra-VTA diazepam infusion increases accumbal dopamine and DOPAC, as well as activity of dopamine D1- but not D2-containing cells. In addition, intra-NAc infusion of a D1-, but not D2, receptor agonist facilitates social dominance and mitochondrial respiration. Conversely, intra-VTA diazepam actions on social dominance and NAc mitochondrial respiration are blocked by pharmacological NAc micro-infusion of a mitochondrial complex I inhibitor or an antagonist of D1 receptors. Our data support the view that diazepam disinhibits VTA dopaminergic neurons, leading to the release of dopamine into the NAc where activation of D1-signaling transiently facilitates mitochondrial function, that is, increased respiration and enhanced ATP levels, which ultimately enhances social competitive behavior. Therefore, our findings critically involve the mesolimbic system in the facilitating effects of diazepam on social competition and highlight mitochondrial function as a potential therapeutic target for anxiety-related social dysfunctions.
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