Differentiating the Primary Reinforcing and Reinforcement-Enhancing Effects of Varenicline

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Rationale: Varenicline (VAR), a smoking cessation aid that is a partial agonist at nicotinic receptors, mimics the reinforcement-enhancing effects of nicotine. Varenicline, when accompanied by non-drug cues, is self-administered by rats, though it is unclear whether this results from varenicline acting as a primary reinforcer or a reinforcement enhancer of the cues. Objectives: This study sought to disentangle these two potential actions. Methods: Rats were allowed to self-administer intravenous nicotine, saline, or varenicline during 1-h sessions in operant chambers equipped with two levers. Five groups had concurrent access to drug infusions and a moderately reinforcing visual stimulus (VS) for responding on separate levers. Meeting the reinforcement schedule on one lever was reinforced with VAR (0.01, 0.06, 0.1 mg/kg/infusion), nicotine (0.06 mg/kg/infusion), or saline, while meeting the same schedule on the other lever delivered the VS. Additional groups were reinforced for pressing a single "active" lever and received VAR paired with the VS, the VS with response-independent infusions of VAR, or VAR alone (0.1 mg/kg/infusion). Results: Rats readily responded for VAR paired with VS on a single lever. However, when VAR was the only reinforcer contingent on a response, rats did not respond more than for saline. Conclusions: These findings show that VAR does not serve as a primary reinforcer in rats at doses that increase responding for non-drug reinforcers. These data are consistent with research showing that the primary reinforcing effects of VAR are weak, at best, and that the primary reinforcing and reinforcement-enhancing actions of nicotinic drugs are pharmacologically distinct.