The mesocorticolimbic pathway is canonically known as the “reward pathway.” Embedded within the center of this circuit is the striatum, a massive and complex network hub that synthesizes motivation, affect, learning, cognition, stress, and sensorimotor information. Although striatal subregions collectively share many anatomical and functional similarities, it has become increasingly clear that it is an extraordinarily heterogeneous region. In particular, the nucleus accumbens (NAc) medial shell has repeatedly demonstrated that the rules dictated by more dorsal aspects of the striatum do not apply or are even reversed in functional logic. These discrepancies are perhaps most easily captured when isolating the functions of various neuromodulatory peptide systems within the striatum. Endogenous peptides are thought to play a critical role in modulating striatal signals to either amplify or dampen evoked behaviors. Here we describe the anatomical-functional backdrop upon which several neuropeptides act within the NAc to modulate behavior, with a specific emphasis on nucleus accumbens medial shell and stress responsivity. Additionally, we propose that, as the field continues to dissect fast neurotransmitter systems within the NAc, we must also provide considerable contextual weight to the roles local peptides play in modulating these circuits to more comprehensively understand how this important subregion gates motivated behaviors. Castro and Bruchas re-examine the anatomical and functional characteristics of the nucleus accumbens with a special emphasis on opioid (and related) peptides and consider how burgeoning technologies can be used to better understand these systems.
- nucleus accumbens