Association between nicotine withdrawal and reward responsiveness in humans and rats

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IMPORTANCE: Reward-related disturbances after withdrawal from nicotine are hypothesized to contribute to relapse to tobacco smoking but mechanisms underlying and linking such processes remain largely unknown.

OBJECTIVE: To determine whether withdrawal from nicotine affects reward responsiveness (ie, the propensity to modulate behavior as a function of prior reinforcement experience) across species using translational behavioral assessments in humans and rats.

DESIGN, SETTING, PARTICIPANTS: Experimental studies used analogous reward responsiveness tasks in both humans and rats to examine whether reward responsiveness varied in (1) an ad libitum smoking condition compared with a 24-hour acute nicotine abstinence condition in 31 human smokers with (n = 17) or without (n = 14) a history of depression; (2) rats 24 hours after withdrawal from chronic nicotine (n = 19) or saline (n = 20); and (3) rats following acute nicotine exposure after withdrawal from either chronic nicotine or saline administration.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Performance on a reward responsiveness task under nicotine and nonnicotine conditions.

RESULTS: In both human smokers and nicotine-treated rats, reward responsiveness was significantly reduced after 24-hour withdrawal from nicotine (P < .05). In humans, withdrawal-induced deficits in reward responsiveness were greater in those with a history of depression. In rats previously exposed to chronic nicotine, acute nicotine reexposure long after withdrawal potentiated reward responsiveness (P < .05).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: These findings across species converge in suggesting that organisms have diminished ability to modulate behavior as a function of reward during withdrawal of nicotine. This blunting may contribute to relapse to tobacco smoking, particularly in depression-vulnerable individuals, to reinstate responsiveness to natural rewards and to experience potentiated nicotine-induced reward responsiveness. Moreover, demonstration of behavioral homology across humans and rodents provides a strong translational framework for the investigation and development of clinical treatments targeting reward responsiveness deficits during early withdrawal of nicotine.