Exploring the interoceptive stimulus effects of nicotine and varenicline

Brady M. Thompson, Scott T. Barrett, Rick A. Bevins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Learning processes associated with nicotine influence the development of addiction to tobacco products. In the present report, we are interested in the interoceptive stimulus effects of nicotine acquiring control over appetitive behaviors – specifically, reward seeking. Also of interest is the current smoking cessation drug, varenicline (Chantix®). Varenicline, with its nicotine-like stimulus effects, can decrease withdrawal and cravings for a subset of individuals addicted to nicotine, though relapse is still common. We trained rats (N = 48) with nicotine (0.4 mg/kg, SC) as an excitatory stimulus (i.e., paired with sucrose) in a drug-discriminated goal-tracking (DGT) task. There was no access to sucrose on interspersed saline days. After acquisition of the initial nicotine-saline discrimination, rats were separated into four groups to test discrimination reversal and drug substitution. The control group maintained nicotine as the excitatory stimulus (NIC+). The substitution group had varenicline (1 mg/kg) replace nicotine as the stimulus paired with sucrose (VAR+). One reversal group had nicotine signal the absence of sucrose (i.e., now available on intermixed saline sessions; NIC−). The last group was similar to the NIC− group except varenicline replaced nicotine on non-reinforced sessions (VAR−). We found that varenicline fully substituted as the training stimulus when the drug-sucrose relation remained in place (VAR+). Both reversal groups acquired the new discrimination, albeit slowly and more variable for the VAR− group in comparison to NIC−. There was an effect of group during substitution testing. Specifically, nicotine fully substituted for varenicline regardless of condition. However, varenicline only partially substituted for the nicotine stimulus. At the start of extinction, responding mimicked that of the rats training condition. However, by extinction session 12, all groups maintained similarly low levels of responding. These findings show nicotine and varenicline share stimulus elements, yet the conclusion of partial to full substitution depends on the nature of the testing protocol.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-16
Number of pages8
JournalPharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior
StatePublished - Jun 2019


  • Chantix®
  • Drug discrimination
  • Nicotine
  • Pavlovian conditioning
  • Reversal learning
  • Varenicline

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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