Environmental enrichment (EE) is a robust intervention for reducing cocaine-seeking behaviors in animals when given during forced abstinence. However, the mechanisms that underlie these effects are not well-established. We investigated the adult male rat transcriptome using RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) following differential housing during forced abstinence from cocaine self-administration for either 1 or 21 days. Enriched, 21-day forced abstinence rats displayed a significant reduction in cocaine-seeking behavior compared to rats housed in isolation. RNA-seq of the nucleus accumbens shell revealed hundreds of differentially regulated transcripts between rats of different forced abstinence length and housing environment, as well as within specific contrasts such as enrichment (isolated 21 days vs. enriched 21 days) or incubation (isolated 1 day vs. isolated 21 days). Ingenuity Pathway Analysis affirmed several pathways as differentially enriched based on housing condition and forced abstinence length including RELN, the Eif2 signaling pathway, synaptogenesis and neurogenesis pathways. Numerous pathways showed upregulation with incubation, but downregulation with EE, suggesting that EE may prevent or reverse changes in gene expression associated with protracted forced abstinence. The findings reveal novel candidate mechanisms involved in the protective effects of EE against cocaine seeking, which may inform efforts to develop pharmacological and gene therapies for treating cocaine use disorders. Furthermore, the finding that EE opposes multiple pathway changes associated with incubation of cocaine seeking strongly supports EE as a therapeutic intervention and suggests EE is capable of preventing or reversing the widespread dysregulation of signaling pathways that occurs during cocaine forced abstinence.
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