Dopaminergic and cholinergic learning mechanisms in nicotine addiction

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2015 Sep;1349(1):46-63. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12871. Epub 2015 Aug 24.


Nicotine addiction drives tobacco use by one billion people worldwide, causing nearly six million deaths a year. Nicotine binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that are normally activated by the endogenous neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The widespread expression of nicotinic receptors throughout the nervous system accounts for the diverse physiological effects triggered by nicotine. A crucial influence of nicotine is on the synaptic mechanisms underlying learning that contribute to the addiction process. Here, we focus on the acquisition phase of smoking addiction and review animal model studies on how nicotine modifies dopaminergic and cholinergic signaling in key nodes of the reinforcement circuitry: ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens (NAc), amygdala, and hippocampus. Capitalizing on mechanisms that subserve natural rewards, nicotine activates midbrain dopamine neurons directly and indirectly, and nicotine causes dopamine release in very broad target areas throughout the brain, including the NAc, amygdala, and hippocampus. In addition, nicotine orchestrates local changes within those target structures, alters the release of virtually all major neurotransmitters, and primes the nervous system to the influence of other addictive drugs. Hence, understanding how nicotine affects the circuitry for synaptic plasticity and learning may aid in developing reasoned therapies to treat nicotine addiction.

Keywords: VTA; acetylcholine; dopamine; hippocampus; memory; nucleus accumbens.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cholinergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Nucleus Accumbens / cytology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / psychology*


  • Acetylcholine
  • Dopamine