Social play behaviour is a vigorous form of social interaction abundant during the juvenile and adolescent phases of life in many mammalian species, including rats and humans. Social play is thought to be important for social, emotional and cognitive development. Being a rewarding activity, the expression of social play depends on its pleasurable and motivational properties. Since opioids have been widely implicated in reward processes, in the present study we investigated the role of opioids in the pleasurable and motivational properties of social play behaviour in rats. To assess social play motivation, an operant conditioning setup was used in which rats responded for social play under a progressive ratio schedule of reinforcement. Treatment with the opioid receptor agonist morphine reduced responding for social play at the highest dose tested, likely due to its rate-limiting effects. Morphine treatment increased the expression of social play behaviour during reinforced periods. The acquisition of social play-induced conditioned place preference (CPP) in a subeffective conditioning protocol was enhanced by treatment with morphine. Morphine treatment alone also induced CPP. In contrast, antagonizing opioid receptors with naloxone reduced responding for social play, the expression of social play and blocked the development of social play-induced CPP. These data implicate opioid neurotransmission in both the pleasurable and the motivational aspects of social play behaviour in rats. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled 'The neuropharmacology of social behavior: from bench to bedside'.
Keywords: Morphine; Motivation; Naloxone; Opioids; Place conditioning; Reward; Social play behaviour.
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