Rationale: Tolerance to delay of reinforcement has been proposed as an important facet of self-control in both animals and man. Poor self-control, leading to impulsive behaviour, can be a major problem if it reaches pathological levels.
Objectives: The effects of five serotonergic drugs were compared to those of ethanol on a procedure for measuring tolerance to delay of reinforcement in rats in order to elucidate further the role of the serotonin systems in the regulation of impulsive behaviour.
Methods: Rats were trained to choose between a single food pellet (small reinforcer) delivered immediately or five food pellets (large reinforcer) delivered after programmed delays. At the start of each session, there was no delay between the response and delivery of the large reinforcer, but this was increased stepwise during the session to delays of 10, 20, 40 and 60 s.
Results: The rats showed consistent preference for the larger reinforcer when it was not delayed but showed a shift in preference as the session continued, so that they preferred the small reinforcer when the large was delayed by 40 or 60 s. Ethanol at a dose of 1.0 g/kg produced a significance increase in preference for the small, immediate reinforcer throughout the session, although there were marked individual differences in the size of the effect. A similar, but somewhat smaller effect was seen with the 5-HT(2) agonist, DOI, at a dose of 1.0 mg/kg. In contrast, the 5-HT(1A) agonist, 8-OH-DPAT (0.3 mg/kg) reduced preference for the large reinforcer at the start of the session, and reduced preference for the small reinforcer at the end of the session, i.e. produced a regression to indifference. Lower doses of these three drugs, and treatment with the 5-HT receptor subtype selective antagonists WAY-100635 (5-HT(1A): 0.01-0.1 mg/kg), ritanserin (5-HT(2): 0.1 and 0.3 mg/kg) and MDL-72222 (5-HT(3): 1.0 and 3.0 mg/kg) had no significant effects on reinforcer choice.
Conclusion: These data show that ethanol and DOI increase preference for the immediate reinforcer, which can be construed as evidence of an increase in impulsive behaviour (reduction in self control), whereas selective blockade of the 5-HT(1A), 5-HT(2) or 5-HT(3) receptors using selective antagonists does not affect self-control.