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The Yale-SCOR is organized around research projects and cores. To learn more, explore the tabs below.

Project 1: Acetylcholine-Norepinephrine Interactions and Their Implications for the Effects of Nicotine in Reinforcement and Stress Reactivity

The primary aims of Project 1 are to identify the brain areas regulated by noradrenergic agents and nicotinic drugs under conditions related to stress-reactivity, and to determine whether stimulation of the noradrenergic system can decrease stress reactivity and dopamine dependent behaviors in a hypercholinergic model of increased stress reactivity in male and female mice. This project will also determine whether the effects of noradrenergic agents on anxiety and nicotine reinforcement depend on expression of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, the primary target of nicotine in the brain.

Principal Investigator:
Marina Picciotto, Ph.D.
Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry
Professor of Pharmacology and of Neurobiology
Yale University School of Medicine

Yann S. Mineur, Ph.D.
Research Scientist in Psychiatry
Yale University School of Medicine

Mineur YS, Cahuzac EL, Mose TN, Bentham MP, Plantenga ME, Thompson DC, Picciotto MR. Interaction between noradrenergic and cholinergic signaling in amygdala regulates anxiety- and depression-related behaviors in mice. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018 Feb 22. [Epub ahead of print]. Pub Med PMID: 29472646; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC in progress.

Medications that target the noradrenergic system are important therapeutics for depression and anxiety disorders. More recently, clinical studies have shown that the α2-noradrenergic receptor (α2AR) agonist guanfacine can decrease stress-induced smoking relapse during acute abstinence, suggesting that targeting the noradrenergic system may aid in smoking cessation through effects on stress pathways in the brain. Acetylcholine (ACh), like the nicotine in tobacco, acts at nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) to regulate behaviors related to anxiety and depression. We therefore investigated interactions between guanfacine and ACh signaling in tests of anxiolytic and antidepressant efficacy in female and male C57BL/6J mice, focusing on the amygdala as a potential site of noradrenergic/cholinergic interaction. The antidepressant-like effects of guanfacine were blocked by shRNA-mediated knockdown of α2AR in amygdala. Knockdown of the high-affinity β2 nAChR subunit in amygdala also prevented antidepressant-like effects of guanfacine, suggesting that these behavioral effects require ACh signaling through β2-containing nAChRs in this brain area. Ablation of NE terminals prevented the anxiolytic- and antidepressant-like effects of the nicotinic partial agonist cytisine, whereas administration of the cholinesterase antagonist physostigmine induced a depression-like phenotype that was not altered by knocking down α2AR in the amygdala. These studies suggest that ACh and NE have opposing actions on behaviors related to anxiety and depression and that cholinergic signaling through β2-containing nAChRs and noradrenergic signaling through α2a receptors in neurons of the amygdala are critical for regulation of these behaviors.

Mineur YS, Bentham MP, Zhou WL, Plantenga ME, McKee SA, Picciotto MR. Antidepressant-like effects of guanfacine and sex-specific differences in effects on c-fos immunoreactivity and paired-pulse ratio in male and female mice. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015 Oct;232(19):3539-49. PubMed PMID: 26146014; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4561580.


The a2A-noradrenergic agonist guanfacine can decreases stress-induced smoking in female, but not male, human smokers. It is not known whether these effects are due to effects on mood regulation and/or result from nicotinic-cholinergic interactions.


The objective of the study was to determine whether there are sex differences in the effect of guanfacine in tests of anxiolytic and antidepressant efficacy in mice at baseline and in a hypercholinergic model of depression induced by the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor physostigmine.


The effects of guanfacine were measured in the light/dark box, tail suspension, and the forced swim test in female and maleC57BL/6J mice. In parallel, electrophysiological properties were evaluated in the prefrontal cortex, a critical brain region involved in stress responses. c-fos immunoreactivity was measured in other brain regions known to regulate mood.


Despite a baseline sex difference in behavior in the forced swim test (female mice were more immobile), guanfacine had similar, dose-dependent, antidepressant-like effects in mice of both sexes (optimal dose, 0.15 mg/kg). An antidepressant-like effect of guanfacinewas also observed following pre-treatment with physostigmine. A sex difference in the paired-pulse ratio in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) (male, 1.4; female, 2.1) was observed at baseline that was normalized by guanfacine. Other brain areas involved in cholinergic control of depression-like behaviors, including the basolateral amygdala and lateral septum, showed sex-specific changes in c-fos expression.


Guanfacine has a robust antidepressant-like effect and can reverse a depression-like state induced by increased acetylcholine (ACh) signaling. These data suggest that different brain areas are recruited in female and male mice, despite similar behavioral responses to guanfacine.