Research has identified at least two positive reinforcement-related effects of nicotine: (a) primary reinforcement and (b) enhancement of reinforcement from concurrently available stimuli. Prior examples of the reinforcement-enhancing effects with rats showed that repeated, intermittent nicotine exposure increased responding for non-nicotine reinforcers, and this effect remained robust over several weeks. However, the effects of continuous nicotine exposure on responding for a non-nicotine reinforcer are unknown, as are the effects of abruptly withdrawing continuous nicotine on behavior maintained by the same reinforcer.
Lever pressing for a visual reinforcer under a fixed ratio schedule was assessed while rats were maintained on a chronic, continuous infusion of nicotine (3.16 mg/kg/day; osmotic minipump). The effects of precipitated withdrawal on responding, following 16 days of continuous nicotine exposure, were assessed by pre-session subcutaneous injections of mecamylamine (1.0 mg/kg).
Continuous nicotine initially increased active responding for the visual reinforcer; however, continued exposure resulted in an attenuation of this effect. Precipitated withdrawal from nicotine resulted in a significant decline in active responding.
The initial increase in responding for the visual reinforcer with chronic nicotine exposure is consistent with prior research showing that intermittent exposure to nicotine acts as a reinforcement enhancer. However, the attenuation of this enhancement following prolonged nicotine exposure is in contrast with the persistent effects previously reported. Finally, the decrease in visual reinforcers below control levels (nicotine-naive animals) following nicotine withdrawal highlights a potential for affective withdrawal, which may serve as a motive for continued nicotine use.