Rationale: Cues associated with alcohol can elicit craving, support drug-seeking and precipitate relapse.
Objectives: We investigated the possible involvement of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the conditioned reinforcing properties of ethanol-associated stimuli in the rat.
Materials and methods: First, using in vivo microdialysis, we analyzed the effect of VTA perfusion of the nonselective nAChR antagonist mecamylamine (MEC) or the selective alpha4beta2* nAChR antagonist dihydro-beta-erythroidine (DHbetaE) on the nucleus accumbens (nAc) dopaminergic response to the presentation of an ethanol-associated conditioned stimulus (CS). Second, rats were trained to associate a tone+light CS with the presentation of 10% ethanol and were subsequently tested on the acquisition of a new instrumental response with conditioned reinforcement (CR) after local VTA infusion of MEC, DHbetaE, or alpha-Conotoxin MII (alpha-CtxMII, a selective alpha3beta2* and alpha6* nAChR antagonist).
Results: The ethanol-associated CS elevated nAc dopamine, an effect that was blocked by VTA perfusion of MEC but not DHbetaE. Systemic administration of MEC or local VTA infusion of MEC or alpha-CtxMII selectively blocked ethanol-associated CR, whereas systemic DHbetaE had no effect.
Conclusions: We hypothesize a novel mechanism by which alcohol-associated cues promote drug-seeking behavior via activation of dopamine-stimulating alpha-CtxMII-sensitive nAChRs in the VTA. Pharmacological manipulations of selective nAChRs may thus be possible treatment strategies to prevent cue-induced relapse.