Rationale: Current conceptualizations of drug reinforcement assume that drug-taking behavior is a consequence of the contingent, temporal relationship between the behavior and drug reward. However, stimulant drugs also potentiate the rewarding effects of other reinforcers when administered noncontingently.
Objectives: These studies were designed to determine whether noncontingent nicotine enhances the reinforcing properties of a nonpharmacological reinforcer and whether this direct effect facilitates operant behavior within the context of a nicotine self-administration procedure.
Methods: Rats self-administered nicotine or food, or received noncontingent nicotine, saline, or food either with or without a response-contingent, unconditioned reinforcing visual stimulus (VS).
Results: Noncontingent nicotine, whether delivered as discrete injections based on a pattern of self-administered nicotine or as a continuous infusion, increased response rates maintained by the VS. There were no significant differences in responding by animals that received contingent compared with noncontingent nicotine when a VS was available. This increase was not observed in the absence of the VS or as a consequence of noncontingent food delivery. Operant behavior was equally attenuated and reinstated by the removal and subsequent replacement of contingent and noncontingent nicotine. Nicotine supported self-administration in the absence of response-contingent, nicotine-paired stimuli; however, response rates were drastically reduced compared with nicotine self-administration with the VS.
Conclusions: Nicotine influences operant behavior in two ways: by acting as a primary reinforcer when it is contingent upon behavior, and by directly potentiating the reinforcing properties of other stimuli through a nonassociative mechanism. Nicotine self-administration and smoking may be largely dependent upon this later action.