Beyond their rapid rewarding effects, drugs of abuse can durably alter an individual's response to their environment as illustrated by the compulsive drug seeking and risk of relapse triggered by drug-associated stimuli. The persistence of these associations even long after cessation of drug use demonstrates the enduring mark left by drugs on brain reward circuits. However, within these circuits, neuronal populations are differently affected by drug exposure and growing evidence indicates that relatively small subsets of neurons might be involved in the encoding and expression of drug-mediated associations. The identification of sparse neuronal populations recruited in response to drug exposure has benefited greatly from the study of immediate early genes (IEGs) whose induction is critical in initiating plasticity programs in recently activated neurons. In particular, the development of technologies to manipulate IEG-expressing cells has been fundamental to implicate broadly distributed neuronal ensembles coincidently activated by either drugs or drug-associated stimuli and to then causally establish their involvement in drug responses. In this review, we summarize the literature regarding IEG regulation in different learning paradigms and addiction models to highlight their role as a marker of activity and plasticity. As the exploration of neuronal ensembles in addiction improves our understanding of drug-associated memory encoding, it also raises several questions regarding the cellular and molecular characteristics of these discrete neuronal populations as they become incorporated in drug-associated neuronal ensembles. We review recent efforts towards this goal and discuss how they will offer a more comprehensive understanding of addiction pathophysiology.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Tribute to Paul Greengard (1925-2019)
EditorsStevin H. Zorn
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Number of pages44
ISBN (Print)9780128225165
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Publication series

NameAdvances in Pharmacology
ISSN (Print)1054-3589
ISSN (Electronic)1557-8925


  • Activity-dependent transcription
  • Addiction
  • Arc
  • Fos
  • IEG
  • Neuronal ensembles
  • Reward circuit


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