Background: Learned cues for pleasant reward often elicit desire, which, in addicts, may become compulsive. According to the dominant view in addiction neuroscience and reinforcement modeling, such desires are the simple products of learning, coming from a past association with reward outcome.
Results: We demonstrate that cravings are more than merely the products of accumulated pleasure memories-even a repulsive learned cue for unpleasantness can become suddenly desired via the activation of mesocorticolimbic circuitry. Rats learned repulsion toward a Pavlovian cue (a briefly-inserted metal lever) that always predicted an unpleasant Dead Sea saltiness sensation. Yet, upon first reencounter in a novel sodium-depletion state to promote mesocorticolimbic reactivity (reflected by elevated Fos activation in ventral tegmentum, nucleus accumbens, ventral pallidum, and the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex), the learned cue was instantly transformed into an attractive and powerful motivational magnet. Rats jumped and gnawed on the suddenly attractive Pavlovian lever cue, despite never having tasted intense saltiness as anything other than disgusting.
Conclusions: Instant desire transformation of a learned cue contradicts views that Pavlovian desires are essentially based on previously learned values (e.g., prediction error or temporal difference models). Instead desire is recomputed at reencounter by integrating Pavlovian information with the current brain/physiological state. This powerful brain transformation reverses strong learned revulsion into avid attraction. When applied to addiction, related mesocorticolimbic transformations (e.g., drugs or neural sensitization) of cues for already-pleasant drug experiences could create even more intense cravings. This cue/state transformation helps define what it means to say that addiction hijacks brain limbic circuits of natural reward.
Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.