The Enduring Behavioral and Neurobiological Effects of a Flavor Cue Paired With Alcohol Drinking During Adolescence on the Incentive Properties of the Flavor Cue in Adulthood in Female Alcohol-Preferring (P) Rats

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BACKGROUND: Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) affect 15 million people nationwide, 4% of which are adolescents (ages 12-17) and adolescents who binge drink significantly increase their likelihood of suffering from an AUD in adulthood. Research shows that cues (i.e. flavors) paired with alcohol (EtOH) produce significant cue-induced alcohol craving and contribute to relapse in adolescent and adult populations. However, there is a lack of research focused on how cues that accompany EtOH drinking during adolescence, affect EtOH craving later in life. The current study sought to examine the sex- and developmental-dependent effects of adolescent exposure to flavor cues associated with EtOH on operant-lick behavior and cue-induced dopamine (DA) levels within the nucleus accumbens shell (AcbSh; reward structure) in adulthood. METHODS: Adolescent alcohol-preferring (P) rats were randomly assigned to one of 4 groups and received 24 hr. access to three bottles on their home cage: Paired: 0.1% blueberry flavor extract (BB) + 15% v/v EtOH and 2 water bottles; Unpaired: 0.1% BB, 15% v/v EtOH, and water; 15% EtOH alone, and 2 water bottles; BB alone and 2 water bottles. Home cage fluid consumption was measured for 2-weeks. On the third week bottles were removed and all animals underwent 9 days of operant training using an operant sipper paradigm. This consisted of two sipper spouts connected to the computer by a lickometer, which registered tongue contacts with the sipper tube (Paired: BB+EtOH or water; Unpaired BB or EtOH; EtOH alone: EtOH or water; BB alone: BB or water). When the fixed ratio (FR) requirement for number of licks/tongue contacts was met, a liquid delivery solenoid dispensed 0.05 ml of fluid into the sipper tube. Following the final operant session all rats remained in their home-cage for approximately 40 days until adulthood at which point they were returned to the operant chambers and tested for appetitive and consummatory behavior in response to the flavor cue (all rats: BB or water; NO EtOH). Two weeks after the final operant session all rats underwent microdialysis testing to examine cue-induced DA levels in the AcbSh. RESULTS: Data indicated that animals in the paired group exhibited a significantly greater level of licking at the BB sipper and a significantly greater level of DA release in response to the flavor cue compared to the other groups. CONCLUSIONS: Overall, the data suggest that cues paired with EtOH during adolescence may produce persistent changes to the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms that contribute to an increased risk of developing an AUD later in life.