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Rats choose alcohol over social reward in an operant choice procedure

Abstract

The interaction between social factors and alcohol addiction is complex, with potential for both positive and negative contributions to drug use and abstinence. Positive social connections are an important component in successful abstinence, and yet the social context of alcohol use can also lead to relapse. Recently it was shown that rats overwhelmingly choose social reward over methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin in a discrete choice procedure, and that prolonged choice for social reward attenuates incubation of drug craving. The extent to which this effect generalises to rats trained to self-administer alcohol is not known. In this study we aimed to test the effect of social reward on choice for alcohol in male and female rats. We first validated social reward self-administration in both male and female Long-Evans rats, and found that 60 s access to a social partner of the same sex can serve as an operant reinforcer. Next we trained rats to self-administer both social reward and alcohol (20% ethanol in water), and then used discrete choice trial based tests to determine whether there is a choice preference for alcohol or social reward. Our main finding is that both male and female rats showed persistent choice for alcohol over social reward, with only minor differences between the sexes. We also show that choice for alcohol could be reduced via increased response requirement for alcohol, pre-choice alcohol exposure, and also decreasing the alcohol percentage. This study shows that preference for social rewards over drugs may not generalise to rats self-administering alcohol, and we describe several conditions where choice for social reward can be developed. This study highlights the important contribution of social factors to alcohol abuse, and future studies can investigate the neurobiology underlying a shift in preference from alcohol to social rewards.

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Fig. 1: Experiment 1: Response-contingent presentation of a social partner is reinforcing in Long-Evans rats.
Fig. 2: Experiment 2: Choice between alcohol and social reward.
Fig. 3: Social reward and alcohol reward operant training and initial choice tests.
Fig. 4: Effect of increasing fixed ratio (FR) requirement for alcohol on choice.
Fig. 5: Effect of pre-choice alcohol exposure and decreasing alcohol percentage on choice.

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Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge Marco Venniro for providing Med-Associates programs for the choice procedure, and providing valuable insight throughout the initial phases of this experiment. We are also grateful to the peer reviewers for their constructive comments through the review process.

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NJM and TDV conceived of the experiments; RM, YvM, DS, AJM conducted the experiments; AJM analysed the video data. NJM wrote the first draft of the paper; All authors gave final approval of the submission.

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Correspondence to Nathan J. Marchant.

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Marchant, N.J., McDonald, A.J., Matsuzaki, R. et al. Rats choose alcohol over social reward in an operant choice procedure. Neuropsychopharmacol. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-022-01447-6

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