Cholinergic transmission during nicotine withdrawal is influenced by age and pre-exposure to nicotine: implications for teenage smoking

Dev Neurosci. 2014;36(3-4):347-55. doi: 10.1159/000360133. Epub 2014 May 15.


Adolescence is a unique period of development characterized by enhanced tobacco use and long-term vulnerability to neurochemical changes produced by adolescent nicotine exposure. In order to understand the underlying mechanisms that contribute to developmental differences in tobacco use, this study compared changes in cholinergic transmission during nicotine exposure and withdrawal in naïve adult rats compared to (1) adolescent rats and (2) adult rats that were pre-exposed to nicotine during adolescence. The first study compared extracellular levels of acetylcholine (ACh) in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) during nicotine exposure and precipitated withdrawal using microdialysis procedures. Adolescent (postnatal day, PND, 28-42) and adult rats (PND60-74) were prepared with osmotic pumps that delivered nicotine for 14 days (adolescents 4.7 mg/kg/day; adults 3.2 mg/kg/day; expressed as base). Another group of adults was exposed to nicotine during adolescence and then again in adulthood (pre-exposed adults) using similar methods. Control rats received a sham surgery. Following 13 days of nicotine exposure, the rats were implanted with microdialysis probes in the NAc. The following day, dialysis samples were collected during baseline and following systemic administration of the nicotinic receptor antagonist mecamylamine (1.5 and 3.0 mg/kg, i.p.) to precipitate withdrawal. A second study compared various metabolic differences in cholinergic transmission using the same treatment procedures as the first study. Following 14 days of nicotine exposure, the NAc was dissected and acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity was compared across groups. In order to examine potential group differences in nicotine metabolism, blood plasma levels of cotinine (a nicotine metabolite) were also compared following 14 days of nicotine exposure. The results from the first study revealed that nicotine exposure increased baseline ACh levels to a greater extent in adolescent versus adult rats. During nicotine withdrawal, ACh levels in the NAc were increased in a similar manner in adolescent versus adult rats. However, the increase in ACh that was observed in adult rats experiencing nicotine withdrawal was blunted in pre-exposed adults. These neurochemical effects do not appear to be related to nicotine metabolism, as plasma cotinine levels were similar across all groups. The second study revealed that nicotine exposure increased AChE activity in the NAc to a greater extent in adolescent versus adult rats. There was no difference in AChE activity in pre-exposed versus naïve adult rats. In conclusion, our results suggest that nicotine exposure during adolescence enhances baseline ACh in the NAc. However, the finding that ACh levels were similar during withdrawal in adolescent and adult rats suggests that the enhanced vulnerability to tobacco use during adolescence is not related to age differences in withdrawal-induced increases in cholinergic transmission. Our results also suggest that exposure to nicotine during adolescence suppresses withdrawal-induced increases in cholinergic responses during withdrawal. Taken together, this report illustrates important short- and long-term changes within cholinergic systems that may contribute to the enhanced susceptibility to tobacco use during adolescence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism
  • Acetylcholinesterase / metabolism
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Animals
  • Cotinine / metabolism
  • Male
  • Nicotine* / metabolism
  • Nicotinic Agonists* / metabolism
  • Nucleus Accumbens / metabolism
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / drug effects*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects*


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotine
  • Acetylcholinesterase
  • Cotinine
  • Acetylcholine