Chronic cocaine induces HIF-VEGF pathway activation along with angiogenesis in the brain
Cocaine induces vasoconstriction in cerebral vessels, which with repeated use can result in transient ischemic attacks and cerebral strokes. However, the neuroadaptations that follow cocaine’s vasoconstricting effects are not well understood. Here, we investigated the effects of chronic cocaine exposure (2 and 4 weeks) on markers of vascular function and morphology in the rat brain. For this purpose we measured nitric oxide (NO) concentration in plasma, brain neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS or NOS1), HIF-1α, and VEGF expression in different brain regions, i.e., middle prefrontal cortex, somatosensory cortex, nucleus accumbens, and dorsal striatum, using ELISA or Western blot. Additionally, microvascular density in these brain regions was measured using immunofluorescence microscopy. We showed that chronic cocaine significantly affected NOS1, HIF-1α and VEGF expression, in a region- and cocaine treatment-time- dependent manner. Cerebral microvascular density increased significantly in parallel to these neurochemical changes. Furthermore, significant correlations were detected between VEGF expression and microvascular density in cortical regions (middle prefrontal cortex and somatosensory cortex), but not in striatal regions (nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum). These results suggest that following chronic cocaine use, as cerebral ischemia developed, NOS1, the regulatory protein to counteract blood vessel constriction, was upregulated; meanwhile, the HIF-VEGF pathway was activated to increase microvascular density (i.e., angiogenesis) and thus restore local blood flow and oxygen supply. These physiological responses were triggered presumably as an adaptation to minimize ischemic injury caused by cocaine. Therefore, effectively promoting such physiological responses may provide novel and effective therapeutic solutions to treat cocaine-induced cerebral ischemia and stroke.