Review. Context-induced relapse to drug seeking: a review

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008 Oct 12;363(1507):3233-43. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0090.


In humans, exposure to environmental contexts previously associated with drug intake often provokes relapse to drug use, but the mechanisms mediating this relapse are unknown. Based on early studies by Bouton & Bolles on context-induced 'renewal' of learned behaviours, we developed a procedure to study context-induced relapse to drug seeking. In this procedure, rats are first trained to self-administer drug in one context. Next, drug-reinforced lever responding is extinguished in a different (non-drug) context. Subsequently, context-induced reinstatement of drug seeking is assessed by re-exposing rats to the drug-associated context. Using variations of this procedure, we and others reported reliable context-induced reinstatement in rats with a history of heroin, cocaine, heroin-cocaine combination, alcohol and nicotine self-administration. Here, we first discuss potential psychological mechanisms of context-induced reinstatement, including excitatory and inhibitory Pavlovian conditioning, and occasion setting. We then summarize results from pharmacological and neuroanatomical studies on the role of several neurotransmitter systems (dopamine, glutamate, serotonin and opioids) and brain areas (ventral tegmental area, accumbens shell, dorsal striatum, basolateral amygdala, prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus and lateral hypothalamus) in context-induced reinstatement. We conclude by discussing the clinical implications of rat studies on context-induced reinstatement of drug seeking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cocaine / administration & dosage
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Heroin / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism*
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage
  • Rats
  • Recurrence
  • Self Administration
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Ethanol
  • Nicotine
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine