Male Long-Evans rats were administered nicotine bitartrate or sodium tartrate either during adolescence (p29-43) or adulthood (p80-94). Route of administration was via subcutaneously implanted osmotic pump (initial dose 2.0 mg/kg/day, free base). Five weeks following nicotine administration, brains were processed for Golgi-Cox staining. Medium spiny neurons from nucleus accumbens (NAc) shell were digitally reconstructed for morphometric analysis. Total dendritic length and branch number were greater in medium spiny neurons from animals pretreated with nicotine during adolescence. A branch order analysis indicated that increased branch number was specific to higher order branches. Mean branch lengths did not differ with respect to treatment as a function of branch order. Thus, nicotine-induced increases in total dendritic length were a function of greater numbers of branches, not increased segment length. In contrast, adult nicotine exposure did not significantly alter total dendritic length or branch number of medium spiny neurons. Total dendritic length and branch number of a second morphological type, the large aspiny neuron, did not differ following either adolescent or adult pretreatment. The age-dependent alteration of accumbal structure was associated with qualitatively different behavioral responses to drug challenge. These data provide evidence that drug-induced structural plasticity in nucleus accumbens is considerably more pronounced during adolescence.
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