Drug versus sweet reward: greater attraction to and preference for sweet versus drug cues

Addict Biol. 2015 May;20(3):433-44. doi: 10.1111/adb.12134. Epub 2014 Mar 7.


Despite the unique ability of addictive drugs to directly activate brain reward circuits, recent evidence suggests that drugs induce reinforcing and incentive effects that are comparable to, or even lower than some nondrug rewards. In particular, when rats have a choice between pressing a lever associated with intravenous cocaine or heroin delivery and another lever associated with sweet water delivery, most respond on the latter. This outcome suggests that sweet water is more reinforcing and attractive than either drug. However, this outcome may also be due to the differential ability of sweet versus drug levers to elicit Pavlovian feeding-like conditioned responses that can cause involuntary lever pressing, such as pawing and biting the lever. To test this hypothesis, rats first underwent Pavlovian conditioning to associate one lever with sweet water (0.2% saccharin) and a different lever with intravenous cocaine (0.25 mg) or heroin (0.01 mg). Choice between these two levers was then assessed under two operant choice procedures: one that permitted the expression of Pavlovian-conditioned lever press responses during choice, the other not. During conditioning, Pavlovian-conditioned lever press responses were considerably higher on the sweet lever than on either drug lever, and slightly greater on the heroin lever than on the cocaine lever. Importantly, though these differences in Pavlovian-conditioned behavior predicted subsequent preference for sweet water during choice, they were not required for its expression. Overall, this study confirms that rats prefer the sweet lever because sweet water is more reinforcing and attractive than cocaine or heroin.

Keywords: Choice; cocaine; heroin; incentive motivation; sign-tracking; sweetness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Cocaine / pharmacology
  • Conditioning, Classical / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Operant / drug effects
  • Cues
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Drug-Seeking Behavior / drug effects*
  • Heroin / pharmacology
  • Lighting
  • Male
  • Motivation / drug effects
  • Narcotics / pharmacology
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward*
  • Saccharin / pharmacology
  • Sweetening Agents / pharmacology
  • Taste / drug effects*


  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors
  • Narcotics
  • Sweetening Agents
  • Heroin
  • Saccharin
  • Cocaine