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Nicotine effects on associative learning in human non-smokers

Neuropsychopharmacologyvolume 43pages21902196 (2018) | Download Citation


Tobacco smoking is the most common preventable cause of death in the US. Nicotine is considered the primary constituent responsible for tobacco addiction. Its paradoxically high abuse potential may reflect behavioral control by drug-associated stimuli, which appears to play a larger role for tobacco dependence than for other abused drugs. We tested a potential explanation, hypothesizing that nicotine enhances associative learning, the mechanism underlying the conditioning of drug-associated stimuli. Thirty-two non-smokers were exposed to transdermal nicotine (7 mg/24 h) and placebo in a double-blind cross-over study and tested with behavioral paradigms designed to isolate incidental stimulus–stimulus or stimulus–response learning. The stop signal task required speeded gender judgments of face stimuli. A tone signaled when to withhold the response. Unbeknownst to participants, some faces were always paired with stop trials. Nicotine enhanced the facilitation of stop-responses to these stimuli, and the slowing of go-responses when previously stop-associated stimuli were paired with go trials, indicating stronger associations between paired stimuli and the stop signal/stop response. Another task required feedback-based learning of associations between pairs of shape stimuli. Five pairs were made from either ten different stimuli, or from different combinations of two identical sets of five stimuli with correct associations depending on contextual information. Nicotine increased incorrect choices of stimuli that were associated in a different context, indicating stronger stimulus–stimulus associations at the expense of flexible context-adaptive behavior. The results indicate that nicotine can enhance incidental associative learning, a mechanism that may promote the formation of smoking-associated stimuli and cue-controlled drug-taking.

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We thank Drs. James Gold and Ian Stolerman for helpful comments on the manuscript, and Hassan Omar for help with Matlab programming.


This work was funded by R03 DA037509 (B. Hahn).

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  1. Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, University of Maryland School of Medicine, P.O. Box 21247, Baltimore, MD, 21228, USA

    • Britta Hahn
    • , Ashleigh K. Wells
    •  & Marie B. Yuille
  2. Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    • Agatha Lenartowicz


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Correspondence to Britta Hahn.

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