Disentangling the nature of the nicotine stimulus

Rick A. Bevins, Scott T. Barrett, Robert J. Polewan, Steven T. Pittenger, Natashia Swalve, Sergios Charntikov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Learning involving interoceptive stimuli likely plays an important role in many diseases and psychopathologies. Within this area, there has been extensive research investigating the interoceptive stimulus effects of abused drugs. In this pursuit, behavioral pharmacologists have taken advantage of what is known about learning processes and adapted the techniques to investigate the behavioral and receptor mechanisms of drug stimuli. Of particular interest is the nicotine stimulus and the use of the two-lever operant drug discrimination task and the Pavlovian drug discriminated goal-tracking task. There is strong concordance between the two methods when using "standard" testing protocols that minimize learning on test days. For example, ABT-418, nornicotine, and varenicline all fully evoked nicotine-appropriate responding. Notably, research from our laboratory with the discriminated goal-tracking task has used an alternative testing protocol. This protocol assesses stimulus substitution based on how well extinction learning using a non-nicotine ligand transfers back to the nicotine stimulus. These findings challenge conclusions based on more "standard" testing procedures (e.g., ABT-418 is not nicotine-like). As a starting point, we propose Thurstone scaling as a quantitative method for more precisely comparing transfer of extinction across doses, experiments, and investigators. We close with a discussion of future research directions and potential implications of the research for understanding interoceptive stimuli.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)28-33
Number of pages6
JournalBehavioural Processes
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research and R.A. Bevins were supported by United States Public Health Service Grants DA018114 and DA023951 .

Funding Information:
We thank Peter Killeen for his help with the Thurstone scaling used for the transfer of extinction data, and Terry Davidson for suggesting the CS preexposure experiment that we use as a hypothetical study in the present paper. The time to develop the ideas expressed in this report and the research described here was supported by USPHS grants DA018114 and DA023951.


  • Drug discrimination
  • Extinction learning
  • Nornicotine
  • Pavlovian conditioning
  • Smoking
  • Tobacco
  • Varenicline


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