Research Article

Neurotransmitter Switching in the Adult Brain Regulates Behavior

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Science  26 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6131, pp. 449-453
DOI: 10.1126/science.1234152

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Daylight Determines Dopamine

Expression of the appropriate neurotransmitters is essential for the function of neural circuits. Can neurons change their transmitter phenotype to deal with alterations in the environment? Dulcis et al. (p. 449; see the Perspective by Birren and Marder) exposed adult rats to different photoperiods mimicking summer and winter daylengths. Neurotransmitter expression switched between dopamine and somatostatin in hypothalamic neurons that regulate release of corticotropin-releasing factor. Transmitter switching occurred at the transcriptional level and was accompanied by changes in postsynaptic receptors.


Neurotransmitters have been thought to be fixed throughout life, but whether sensory stimuli alter behaviorally relevant transmitter expression in the mature brain is unknown. We found that populations of interneurons in the adult rat hypothalamus switched between dopamine and somatostatin expression in response to exposure to short- and long-day photoperiods. Changes in postsynaptic dopamine receptor expression matched changes in presynaptic dopamine, whereas somatostatin receptor expression remained constant. Pharmacological blockade or ablation of these dopaminergic neurons led to anxious and depressed behavior, phenocopying performance after exposure to the long-day photoperiod. Induction of newly dopaminergic neurons through exposure to the short-day photoperiod rescued the behavioral consequences of lesions. Natural stimulation of other sensory modalities may cause changes in transmitter expression that regulate different behaviors.

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