Incentive learning for morphine-associated stimuli during protracted abstinence increases conditioned drug preference. Academic Article uri icon


  • Previous studies from our laboratory found that rats express increased preference for drug-paired stimuli following 2 or 5 weeks of protracted abstinence from chronic drug exposure as compared with naive animals. Here, we show that this increased morphine place preference depends upon experiencing drug-stimulus pairings specifically in the abstinent state, indicating a critical role for incentive learning. Male Sprague Dawley rats were initially conditioned for morphine place preference (8mg/kg) and then made dependent on morphine (by subcutaneous morphine pellets) and subjected to forced abstinence. Place preference was tested every 1-2 weeks with no additional drug-cue conditioning. In this paradigm, there was no difference between morphine-pelleted (dependent) and placebo-pelleted (non-dependent) rats in place preference at any time during abstinence (up to 6 weeks). However, these same morphine-pelleted rats expressed significantly increased preference when they were subsequently re-conditioned for morphine place preference during protracted abstinence. Placebo-pelleted rats did not show enhanced preference after re-conditioning. These findings reveal that incentive learning has a key role in increased morphine place preference when drug is experienced during protracted abstinence. This indicates that incentive learning is involved not only in instrumental responding (as previously reported), but also in updating Pavlovian-conditioned responses to morphine-associated stimuli. Therefore, enhanced morphine preference is not a direct consequence of the negative affective state of abstinence, but instead reflects increased acquisition of morphine-stimulus associations during abstinence. These results indicate that, during the development of addiction in humans, drug-associated stimuli acquire increasingly stronger incentive properties each time they are re-experienced.

published proceedings

  • Neuropsychopharmacology

author list (cited authors)

  • Smith, R. J., & Aston-Jones, G.

citation count

  • 9

complete list of authors

  • Smith, Rachel J||Aston-Jones, Gary

publication date

  • January 2014