Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Pharmacology & Toxicology

First Advisor

Darlene Brunzell


Nicotine is a major psychoactive ingredient in tobacco that is thought to promote smoking behavior via nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the brain. Given reports that people smoke to relieve anxiety and that anxiety precipitates relapse, the overarching goal of this dissertation research is to assess beta 2 subunit containing nAChR (beta2*nAChR) contributions to anxiety-like behavior. Nicotine’s activity at beta2*nAChRs is concentration-dependent, with high concentrations facilitating activation followed by rapid desensitization and low concentrations preferentially desensitizing beta2*nAChRs; hence, activation or inhibition of beta2*nAChRs may support smoking behavior. Rodent studies reveal that nicotine affects anxiety-like behavior dose-dependently: low doses promote anxiolysis- and high doses support anxiogenic-like behavior. These pharmacological and genetic studies in mice test the hypothesis that nicotine administration promotes anxiolysis via inactivation of beta2*nAChRs and begin to identify which subunits, namely alpha 4 and alpha 6, work in concert with beta 2 to affect anxiety-like behavior. Low dose nicotine and inhibition of beta2*nAChRs supported anxiolysis-like behavior in a number of tasks with predictive validity for anxiolysis efficacy. These studies further suggest that activation of alpha6beta2*nAChRs is sufficient to produce anxiogenic-like behavior and that inhibition of alpha4beta2*nAChRs supports anxiolysis-like behavior. A secondary goal of these studies is to assess if beta2*nAChRs affect anxiety-like behavior during aging. Dysregulation of cholinergic tone can increase anxiety in the elderly, but little is known regarding beta2*nAChR contributions to anxiety in this population or where in the brain this may take place. These studies show that alpha4beta2*nAChR expression differentially affects anxiety-like behavior in adult and aged mice. With a focus on the lateral septum, a GABA-ergic limbic nucleus thought to regulate anxiety-like responses to external stimuli, a third goal of these studies is to elucidate the neuroanatomical and intracellular underpinnings of anxiety-like behavior that are affected by beta2*nAChR inhibition and expression. Previous studies demonstrate that exposure to stressors reduces phosphorylation of extracellular regulated kinase (ERK) in the lateral septum. In these studies, levels of pERK in the lateral septum were inversely associated with alpha4beta2*nAChR expression as well as anxiogenic-like behavior. In sum, these preclinical studies suggest that inhibition alpha4beta2*nAChRs may support cessation in those who smoke to relieve anxiety.


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VCU University Archives

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VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission

December 2013