Transcriptomic analysis reveals cell type-specific patterns of gene expression associated with morphine intake

~190,000 nuclei were used for unbiased clustering and are presented as a uniform manifold approximation and projection (UMAP) dimension reduction plot of all nuclei color-coded by cluster. Clusters were then annotated with genes known to be markers for major neural cell types.

Opioid exposure is known to cause transcriptomic changes in the nucleus accumbens (NAc). However, no studies to date have investigated cell type-specific transcriptomic changes associated with volitional opioid taking. Here, we use single nucleus RNA sequencing (snRNAseq) to comprehensively characterize cell type-specific alterations of the NAc transcriptome in rats self-administering morphine. One cohort of male Brown Norway rats was injected with acute morphine (10 mg/kg, i.p.) or saline. A second cohort of rats was allowed to self-administer intravenous morphine (1.0 mg/kg/infusion) for 10 consecutive days. Each morphine-experienced rat was paired with a yoked saline control rat. snRNAseq libraries were generated from NAc punches and used to identify cell type-specific gene expression changes associated with volitional morphine taking. We identified 1106 differentially expressed genes (DEGs) in the acute morphine group, compared to 2453 DEGs in the morphine self-administration group, across 27 distinct cell clusters. Importantly, we identified 1329 DEGs that were specific to morphine self-administration. DEGs were identified in novel clusters of astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and D1R- and D2R-expressing medium spiny neurons in the NAc. Cell type-specific DEGs included Rgs9, Celf5, Oprm1, and Pde10a. Upregulation of Rgs9 and Celf5 in D2R-expressing neurons was validated by RNAscope. Approximately 85% of all oligodendrocyte DEGs, nearly all of which were associated with morphine taking, were identified in two subtypes. Bioinformatic analyses identified cell type-specific upstream regulatory mechanisms of the observed transcriptome alterations and downstream signaling pathways, including both novel and previously identified molecular pathways. These findings show that volitional morphine taking is associated with distinct cell type-specific transcriptomic changes in the rat NAc and highlight specific striatal cell populations and novel molecular substrates that could be targeted to reduce compulsive opioid taking.


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