Hailley Angelyn Pearson
Recovering alcoholics who are cigarette smokers are twice as likely to relapse to alcohol abuse as those who are nonsmokers. Clinically, this suggests that quitting smoking may be key to maintaining sobriety, but why? My name is Hailley Angelyn Pearson and I am a graduate student advised by Dr. Paul Meyer in the Behavioral Neuroscience program of the Department of Psychology. Broadly, Dr. Meyer's lab uses rodent models to investigate the neurobiological basis of motivated behaviors, such as those involved in the procurement of drugs. One branch of this research is dedicated to understanding how drug-associated stimuli ("cues") acquire the ability to instigate drug-motivated behaviors. My projects have specifically investigated how cues may, in part, underlie the basis of comorbid alcohol and nicotine use. An environment, or "context", in which alcohol-use has previously occurred can act as a cue that produces a cognitive expectation of, or even craving for, alcohol consumption. While nicotine is known to enhance other aspects of motivation, it is unknown if nicotine can also enhance cognitive expectation, which is maintained by separate, distinct neural circuits. Understanding whether nicotine influences environmentally-mediated expectation could be critical for understanding why relapse is common when alcoholics return home after treatment.
Environmental stimuli, e.g. an illuminated OPEN sign, can signal the availability of alcohol, and acquire the ability to produce an expectation of, or even craving for, alcohol. One explanation for the increase in alcohol-seeking demonstrated by recovering alcoholics who are cigarette smokers, relative to non-smokers, is that nicotine heightens the expectation of alcohol produced by alcohol-associated environmental stimuli. In order to investigate this hypothesis, rats underwent alcohol self-administration, extinction and reinstatement, throughout which they received nicotine or saline injections. Our primary measure was the extent to which the "alcohol-available" stimulus learned during self-administration was able to reinstate alcohol-seeking after extinction. Reinstatement was greatest in rats modeling smokers who continue smoking after achieving abstinence. Notably, reinstatement was reduced in rats modeling smokers who quit smoking after achieving abstinence. Thus, nicotine increases motivation for alcohol by enhancing cognitive expectations produced by environmental stimuli. Clinically, ceasing smoking may prolong alcohol abstinence.
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