Mesolimbic dopamine (DA) controls drug- and alcohol-seeking behavior, but the role of specific DA receptor subtypes is unclear. We tested the hypothesis that D3R gene deletion or the D3R pharmacological blockade inhibits ethanol preference in mice. D3R-deficient mice (D3R(-/-)) and their wild-type (WT) littermates, treated or not with the D3R antagonists SB277011A and U99194A, were tested in a long-term free choice ethanol-drinking (two-bottle choice) and in a binge-like ethanol-drinking paradigm (drinking in the dark, DID). The selectivity of the D3R antagonists was further assessed by molecular modeling. Ethanol intake was negligible in D3R(-/-) and robust in WT both in the two-bottle choice and DID paradigms. Treatment with D3R antagonists inhibited ethanol intake in WT but was ineffective in D3R(-/-) mice. Ethanol intake increased the expression of RACK1 and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in both WT and D3R(-/-); in WT there was also a robust overexpression of D3R. Thus, increased expression of D3R associated with activation of RACK1/BDNF seems to operate as a reinforcing mechanism in voluntary ethanol intake. Indeed, blockade of the BDNF pathway by the TrkB selective antagonist ANA-12 reversed chronic stable ethanol intake and strongly decreased the striatal expression of D3R. Finally, we evaluated buspirone, an approved drug for anxiety disorders endowed with D3R antagonist activity (confirmed by molecular modeling analysis), that resulted effective in inhibiting ethanol intake. Thus, DA signaling via D3R is essential for ethanol-related reward and consumption and may represent a novel therapeutic target for weaning.
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