Maladaptive Decision Making in Adults with a History of Adolescent Alcohol use, in a Preclinical Model, Is Attributable to the Compromised Assignment of Incentive Value during Stimulus-Reward Learning

Front Behav Neurosci. 2017 Jul 25;11:134. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00134. eCollection 2017.


According to recent WHO reports, alcohol remains the number one substance used and abused by adolescents, despite public health efforts to curb its use. Adolescence is a critical period of biological maturation where brain development, particularly the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system, undergoes substantial remodeling. These circuits are implicated in complex decision making, incentive learning and reinforcement during substance use and abuse. An appealing theoretical approach has been to suggest that alcohol alters the normal development of these processes to promote deficits in reinforcement learning and decision making, which together make individuals vulnerable to developing substance use disorders in adulthood. Previously we have used a preclinical model of voluntary alcohol intake in rats to show that use in adolescence promotes risky decision making in adulthood that is mirrored by selective perturbations in dopamine network dynamics. Further, we have demonstrated that incentive learning processes in adulthood are also altered by adolescent alcohol use, again mirrored by changes in cue-evoked dopamine signaling. Indeed, we have proposed that these two processes, risk-based decision making and incentive learning, are fundamentally linked through dysfunction of midbrain circuitry where inputs to the dopamine system are disrupted by adolescent alcohol use. Here, we test the behavioral predictions of this model in rats and present the findings in the context of the prevailing literature with reference to the long-term consequences of early-life substance use on the vulnerability to develop substance use disorders. We utilize an impulsive choice task to assess the selectivity of alcohol's effect on decision-making profiles and conditioned reinforcement to parse out the effect of incentive value attribution, one mechanism of incentive learning. Finally, we use the differential reinforcement of low rates of responding (DRL) task to examine the degree to which behavioral disinhibition may contribute to an overall decision-making profile. The findings presented here support the proposition that early life alcohol use selectively alters risk-based choice behavior through modulation of incentive learning processes, both of which may be inexorably linked through perturbations in mesolimbic circuitry and may serve as fundamental vulnerabilities to the development of substance use disorders.

Keywords: adolescent; alcohol; decision making; impulsivity; incentive learning; risk taking.