The importance of acquisition learning on nicotine and varenicline drug substitution in a drug-discriminated goal-tracking task

Brady M. Thompson, Scott T. Barrett, Y. Wendy Huynh, David A. Kwan, Jennifer E. Murray, Rick A. Bevins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Nicotine and varenicline (Chantix®; the leading non-nicotine cessation pharmacotherapy) can come to control appetitive behaviors such as goal-tracking. We tested rats (N = 48) in a drug-discriminated goal-tracking (DGT) task where each rat received daily subcutaneous injections of either nicotine (0.4 mg/kg) or saline (0.9% [w/v]) interspersed across the acquisition phase (Phase 1). On saline days, sucrose was intermittently available. On nicotine days, sucrose was withheld. All rats acquired the discrimination with increased goal-tracking rates on saline days relative to nicotine days. Following acquisition, rats were separated into four groups to assess drug-substitution and discrimination reversal in Phase 2. The first group maintained the stimulus-reinforcer relation from acquisition (NIC-). The reversal group was now given access to sucrose on nicotine days (NIC+). The substitution group replaced nicotine with varenicline (1 mg/kg) while maintaining the acquisition stimulus-reinforcer relation (VAR-). The substitution and reversal group had nicotine replaced by varenicline and the stimulus-reinforcer relation reversed (VAR+). Rats in all groups learned or maintained their Phase 1 discriminations. For Phase 2, the reversal groups (+ conditions) acquired their discriminations within 10 sessions. The VAR- group displayed a pattern of disrupted discrimination at the outset of Phase 2 but was reestablished after continued training. In substitution testing, VAR groups received nicotine and NIC groups received varenicline. The NIC- and VAR- groups displayed full substitution of the test stimulus whereas the NIC+ and VAR+ groups displayed partial substitution of the test stimulus. Rats underwent nicotine extinction in Phase 3. Initial responding for each group mimicked Phase 2 training (i.e., higher responding by the reversal groups). All rats maintained similarly low levels of responding after six sessions. In conclusion, initial learning history with nicotine (i.e., + or −) influenced drug-stimulus substitution and the rate at which new learning (e.g., reversal) occurs with the varenicline and nicotine interoceptive stimuli.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number173045
JournalPharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior
StatePublished - Dec 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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