Heroin and saccharin demand and preference in rats

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017 Sep 1:178:87-93. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.04.031. Epub 2017 Jun 13.


Background: Several recent studies have investigated the choice between heroin and a non-drug alternative reinforcer in rats. A common finding in these studies is that there are large individual differences in preference, with some rats preferring heroin and some preferring the non-drug alternative. The primary goal of the present study was to determine whether individual differences in how heroin or saccharin is valued, based on demand analysis, predicts choice.

Methods: Rats lever-pressed for heroin infusions and saccharin reinforcers on fixed-ratio schedules. The essential value of each reinforcer was obtained from resulting demand curves. Rats were then trained on a mutually exclusive choice procedure where pressing one lever resulted in heroin and pressing another resulted in saccharin. After seven sessions of increased access to heroin or saccharin, rats were reexposed to the demand and choice procedures.

Results: Demand for heroin was more elastic than demand for saccharin (i.e., heroin had lower essential value than saccharin). When allowed to choose, most rats preferred saccharin. The essential value of heroin, but not saccharin, predicted preference. The essential value of both heroin and saccharin increased following a week of increased access to heroin, but similar saccharin exposure had no effect on essential value. Preference was unchanged after increased access to either reinforcer.

Conclusion: Heroin-preferring rats differed from saccharin-preferring rats in how they valued heroin, but not saccharin. To the extent that choice models addiction-related behavior, these results suggest that overvaluation of opioids specifically, rather than undervaluation of non-drug alternatives, could identify susceptible individuals.

Keywords: Choice; Demand; Essential value; Heroin self-administration; Rats; Saccharin.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism*
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology
  • Choice Behavior / drug effects*
  • Heroin / chemistry
  • Heroin / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Saccharin / chemistry
  • Saccharin / pharmacology*


  • Heroin
  • Saccharin