Neurobiological Mechanisms that Contribute to Stress-related Cocaine Use

John R. Mantsch, Marquette University
Oliver Vranjkovic, Marquette University
Robert C. Twining, Marquette University
Paul J. Gasser, Marquette University
Jayme R. McReynolds
Jordan M. Blacktop, Marquette University

Accepted version. Neuropharmacology, Vol. 76, Part B (January 2014): 383-394. DOI. © Elsevier 2014. Used with permission.


The ability of stressful life events to trigger drug use is particularly problematic for the management of cocaine addiction due to the unpredictable and often uncontrollable nature of stress. For this reason, understanding the neurobiological processes that contribute to stress-related drug use is important for the development of new and more effective treatment strategies aimed at minimizing the role of stress in the addiction cycle. In this review we discuss the neurocircuitry that has been implicated in stress-induced drug use with an emphasis on corticotropin releasing factor actions in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and an important pathway from the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis to the VTA that is regulated by norepinephrine via actions at beta adrenergic receptors. In addition to the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie stress-induced cocaine seeking, we review findings suggesting that the ability of stressful stimuli to trigger cocaine use emerges and intensifies in an intake-dependent manner with repeated cocaine self-administration. Further, we discuss evidence that the drug-induced neuroadaptations that are necessary for heightened susceptibility to stress-induced drug use are reliant on elevated levels of glucocorticoid hormones at the time of cocaine use. Finally, the potential ability of stress to function as a “stage setter” for drug use – increasing sensitivity to cocaine and drug-associated cues – under conditions where it does not directly trigger cocaine seeking is discussed. As our understanding of the mechanisms through which stress promotes drug use advances, the hope is that so too will the available tools for effectively managing addiction, particularly in cocaine addicts whose drug use is stress-driven.