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Nucleus Accumbens and Its Role in Reward and Emotional Circuitry: A Potential Hot Mess in Substance Use and Emotional Disorders

Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Nucleus accumbens (NAc) is a key region in the brain that is integral to both the reward and the emotional systems. The aim of the current paper is to synthesize the basic and the clinical neuroscience discoveries relevant to the NAc for the purpose of two-way translation. Selected literature on the structure and the functionality of the NAc is reviewed across animal and human studies. Dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate are the three key neurotransmitters that modulate the reward function and the motor activity. Dissociative roles of the core and the shell of the NAc include getting to the reward and staying on task with discretion, respectively. NAc shows decreased activation to reward in the individuals with major depressive disorder and the bipolar disorder, relative to that healthy controls (HC). The “difficult to please” or insatiability in response to reward in the emotional disorders may possibly be explained by such a neural pattern. Furthermore, it is likely that the increased amygdala activity reported in mood disorders could be accentuating the “wanting” of the reward by the virtue of its connections with the NAc, explaining the potential “hot mess”. In contrast, the NAc shows increased reward response in substance use disorders, relative to HC, in response to reward and emotional tasks. Accurate characterization of the NAc and its functionality in the human imaging studies of mood and substance use has important treatment implications.
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