Apparatus bias and place conditioning with ethanol in mice
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Although the distinction between "biased" and "unbiased" is generally recognized as an important methodological issue in place conditioning, previous studies have not adequately addressed the distinction between a biased/unbiased apparatus and a biased/unbiased stimulus assignment procedure. Moreover, a review of the recent literature indicates that many reports (70% of 76 papers published in 2001) fail to provide adequate information about apparatus bias. This issue is important because the mechanisms underlying a drug's effect in the place-conditioning procedure may differ depending on whether the apparatus is biased or unbiased.
The present studies were designed to assess the impact of apparatus bias and stimulus assignment procedure on ethanol-induced place conditioning in mice (DBA/2 J). A secondary goal was to compare various dependent variables commonly used to index conditioned place preference.
Apparatus bias was manipulated by varying the combination of tactile (floor) cues available during preference tests. Experiment 1 used an unbiased apparatus in which the stimulus alternatives were equally preferred during a pre-test as indicated by the group average. Experiment 2 used a biased apparatus in which one of the stimuli was strongly preferred by most mice (mean % time on cue = 67%) during the pre-test. In both studies, the stimulus paired with drug (CS+) was assigned randomly (i.e., an "unbiased" stimulus assignment procedure). Experimental mice received four pairings of CS+ with ethanol (2 g/kg, i.p.) and four pairings of the alternative stimulus (CS−) with saline; control mice received saline on both types of trial. Each experiment concluded with a 60-min choice test.
With the unbiased apparatus (experiment 1), significant place conditioning was obtained regardless of whether drug was paired with the subject's initially preferred or non-preferred stimulus. However, with the biased apparatus (experiment 2), place conditioning was apparent only when ethanol was paired with the initially non-preferred cue, and not when it was paired with the initially preferred cue. These conclusions held regardless of which dependent variable was used to index place conditioning, but only if the counterbalancing factor was included in statistical analyses.
These studies indicate that apparatus bias plays a major role in determining whether biased assignment of an ethanol-paired stimulus affects ability to demonstrate conditioned place preference. Ethanol's ability to produce conditioned place preference in an unbiased apparatus, regardless of the direction of the initial cue bias, supports previous studies that interpret such findings as evidence of a primary rewarding drug effect. Moreover, these studies suggest that the asymmetrical outcome observed in the biased apparatus is most likely due to a measurement problem (e.g., ceiling effect) rather than to an interaction between the drug's effect and an unconditioned motivational response (e.g., "anxiety") to the initially non-preferred stimulus. More generally, these findings illustrate the importance of providing clear information on apparatus bias in all place-conditioning studies.