Treatment of the most widely abused drugs, nicotine and alcohol, is hampered by high rates of relapse. Varenicline tartrate, an α4β2 nicotinic receptor partial agonist, is currently prescribed as a smoking cessation aid. However, there is emerging evidence that it may also modulate alcohol seeking and cognitive functioning in rats.
As preclinical data on alcohol taking and relapse are limited, we used a self-administration–reinstatement model to evaluate the effects of varenicline on operant responding for alcohol (12%, v/v), intravenous nicotine (40 μg/kg/inf.), sucrose (10%, w/v) and on cue-induced relapse to alcohol and nicotine seeking in rats. At the cognitive level, we assed varenicline's effects on 5-choice serial reaction time task (5-CSRTT) performance with a focus on correct responses (attention) and premature responding (impulsivity), modalities that have previously been associated with addictive behaviour.
Varenicline, at doses of 1.5 and 2.5 mg/kg, reduced alcohol and nicotine self-administration and enhanced operant responding for sucrose. At these doses, varenicline reduced cue-induced relapse to alcohol, but not nicotine seeking. In contrast, at 0.5 mg/kg, varenicline facilitated cue-induced nicotine seeking. Similar to nicotine, varenicline increased premature responding at low doses, but had no effect on any of the other behavioural parameters in the 5-CSRTT.
Our data indicate that varenicline specifically reduced responding for nicotine and alcohol, but not for natural reinforcers such as sucrose. Interestingly, varenicline strongly attenuated cue-induced relapse to alcohol seeking, but not nicotine seeking. Varenicline may therefore be a promising aid in the treatment of alcohol addiction.