Gender-specific roles for the melanocortin-3 receptor in the regulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system in mice.

PMID 24605830


The melanocortin-3 receptor (MC3R) and MC4R are known to play critical roles in energy homeostasis. However, the physiological functions of the MC3R remain poorly understood. Earlier reports indicated that the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is one of the highest sites of MC3R expression, and we sought to determine the function of the receptor in this brain region. A MC3R-green-fluorescent protein transgenic mouse and a MC3R knockout mouse strain were used to characterize the neurochemical identity of the MC3R neurons in the VTA and to determine the effects of global MC3R deletion on VTA dopamine (DA) homeostasis. We demonstrate that the MC3R, but not MC4R, is expressed in up to a third of dopaminergic neurons of the VTA. Global deletion of the MC3R increases total dopamine by 42% in the VTA and decreases sucrose intake and preference in female but not male mice. Ovariectomy restores dopamine levels to normal, but aberrant decreased VTA dopamine levels are also observed in prepubertal female mice. Because arcuate Agouti-related peptide/neuropeptide Y neurons are known to innervate and regulate VTA signaling, the MC3R in dopaminergic neurons provides a specific input for communication of nutritional state within the mesolimbic dopamine system. Data provided here suggest that this input may be highly sexually dimorphic, functioning as a specific circuit regulating effects of estrogen on VTA dopamine levels and on sucrose preference. Overall, this data support a sexually dimorphic function of MC3R in regulation of the mesolimbic dopaminergic system and reward.