Drug reward plays a central role in acquiring drug-seeking behavior. However, subjects may continue using drugs despite negative consequences because self-administration becomes habitual, and divorced from outcome values. Although a history of drug and alcohol use expedite habit acquisition, and in spite of the fact that self-administration leads to intoxication, the acute effects of drugs on habitual responding are not well understood.
We sought to observe how acute ethanol and amphetamine affect the balance between habitual and goal-directed behavior, as measured by a fluid-reinforced operant conditioning task.
Selectively bred crossed high-alcohol-preferring (cHAP) mice were trained on an operant conditioning task reinforced on a variable interval schedule with 1% banana solution, which was subsequently devalued via LiCl pairing in half the animals. Ethanol (1.0 g/kg), amphetamine (2.0 mg/kg), or saline was administered prior to a post-devaluation test.
Overall, mice showed habitual behavior, but when divided into high- or low-responding groups based on training response rates, saline-treated, low-responding animals devalued, while saline-treated high-responding animals did not. Furthermore, amphetamine elicited devaluation even in high-responding animals, while ethanol prevented devaluation even in low-responding animals.
These data show that ethanol shifts animals toward behaving habitually. This may illuminate why alcohol-intoxicated individuals display impaired judgment about the relative merits of drinking, and potentially serve as a mechanism by which intoxicated subjects resume previously devalued behaviors, such as comorbid drug use. These findings also show that high variable interval response rates facilitate a shift from goal-directed to habitual behavior.