Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)



Date of Award


Committee Chair or Co-Chairs

Matthew Palmatier

Committee Members

Gerald Deehan, Russell Brown, Eric Sellers, Diana Morelen


Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive substance in the world, and most caffeine consumption in coffee and energy drinks is intended to produce a psychoactive effect. However, caffeine is not a primary reinforcer in preclinical paradigms – non-human species do not reliably take the drug to produce a psychoactive effect. However, caffeine is a ‘reinforcement enhancer’ in preclinical models; the effects of caffeine increase the motivation to obtain other non-drug reinforcers. The overall goal of this project was to determine if these reinforcement enhancing effects of caffeine could promote caffeine self-administration and to subsequently investigate the behavioral and neurochemical underpinnings of this effect. We hypothesized reliable caffeine self-administration would occur by adventitious pairing of caffeine with saccharin, a primary reinforcer. Second, we hypothesized that caffeine enhances reinforcement by increasing the salience of incentive stimuli, which are stimuli that come to evoke approach behaviors through associative learning (e.g., Pavlovian conditioning). Finally, incentive salience is moderated by dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), an area highly involved in reward-learning and substance dependence. Therefore, we hypothesized that if caffeine enhanced control of approach behavior by incentives, then it would increase the ability of incentive stimuli to evoke dopamine in the NAc. These studies show that intravenous delivery of caffeine with oral saccharin increases operant relative to control groups responding for intravenous caffeine or oral saccharin. The effect was also dose-dependent, confirming that the psychoactive effects of caffeine increased behavior. We also extended this effect to an oral model of caffeine self-administration, which included a simple sweetener (saccharin) or a complex oral vehicle (saccharin with decaffeinated coffee) to mask the bitter taste of caffeine. Presenting caffeine with oral saccharin promoted self-administration, relative to saccharin alone and did not depend on the nature of the complexity of the vehicle. Caffeine also dose-dependently increased approach to an incentive stimulus and this effect was associated with increased extracellular dopamine in the NAc. These findings suggest caffeine enhances incentive motivation and that this effect may result from increases in CS-evoked striatal dopamine.

Document Type

Dissertation - unrestricted


Copyright by the authors.