Distinct recruitment of the hippocampal, thalamic, and amygdalar neurons projecting to the prelimbic cortex in male and female rats during context-mediated renewal of responding to food cues

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Abstract

Persistent responding to food cues may underlie the difficulty to resist palatable foods and to maintain healthy eating habits. Renewal of responding after extinction is a model of persistent food seeking that can be used to study the underlying neural mechanisms. In context-mediated renewal, a return to the context in which the initial cue-food learning occurred induces robust responding to the cues that were extinguished elsewhere. Previous work found sex differences in context-mediated renewal and in the recruitment of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) during that behavior. Males exhibited renewal of responding to food cues and had higher Fos induction in the prelimbic area (PL) of the vmPFC, while females failed to exhibit renewal of responding and had lower Fos induction in the PL. The main aim of the current study was to determine key components of the PL circuitry mediating renewal. The focus was on inputs from three areas important in appetitive associative learning and contextual processing: the amygdala, ventral hippocampal formation, and the paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus. The goal was to determine whether neurons from these areas that send direct projections to the PL (identified with a retrograde tracer) are selectively activated (Fos induction) during renewal and whether they are differently recruited in males and females. The Fos induction patterns demonstrated that the PL-projecting neurons in each of these areas were recruited in a sex-specific way that corresponded to the behavioral differences between males and females. These pathways were selectively activated in the male experimental group—the only group that showed renewal behavior. The findings suggest the pathways from the ventral hippocampal formation, paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus, and basolateral amygdala to the PL mediate renewal in males. The lack of recruitment in females suggests that under activation of these pathways may underlie their lack of renewal.

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