The Neuropharmacology of Nicotine Dependence

Volume 24 of the series Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences pp 19-53


Behavioral Mechanisms Underlying Nicotine Reinforcement

  • Laura E. RupprechtAffiliated withDepartment of Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh
  • , Tracy T. SmithAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
  • , Rachel L. SchassburgerAffiliated withDepartment of Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh
  • , Deanne M. BuffalariAffiliated withDepartment of Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh
  • , Alan F. SvedAffiliated withDepartment of Neuroscience, University of PittsburghDepartment of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
  • , Eric C. DonnyAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh Email author 

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Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide, and nicotine, the primary psychoactive constituent in tobacco, drives sustained use. The behavioral actions of nicotine are complex and extend well beyond the actions of the drug as a primary reinforcer. Stimuli that are consistently paired with nicotine can, through associative learning, take on reinforcing properties as conditioned stimuli. These conditioned stimuli can then impact the rate and probability of behavior and even function as conditioning reinforcers that maintain behavior in the absence of nicotine. Nicotine can also act as a conditioned stimulus (CS), predicting the delivery of other reinforcers, which may allow nicotine to acquire value as a conditioned reinforcer. These associative effects, establishing non-nicotine stimuli as conditioned stimuli with discriminative stimulus and conditioned reinforcing properties as well as establishing nicotine as a CS, are predicted by basic conditioning principles. However, nicotine can also act non-associatively. Nicotine directly enhances the reinforcing efficacy of other reinforcing stimuli in the environment, an effect that does not require a temporal or predictive relationship between nicotine and either the stimulus or the behavior. Hence, the reinforcing actions of nicotine stem both from the primary reinforcing actions of the drug (and the subsequent associative learning effects) as well as the reinforcement enhancement action of nicotine which is non-associative in nature. Gaining a better understanding of how nicotine impacts behavior will allow for maximally effective tobacco control efforts aimed at reducing the harm associated with tobacco use by reducing and/or treating its addictiveness.


Reinforcement Reward Operant Self-administration Nicotine Conditioning