The preweanling period in the rat is characterized by acceptance of substantial amounts of ethanol and susceptibility to its reinforcing effects. It has been unclear, however, whether the neurobiological basis of ethanol reinforcement properties at this age is in ethanol's olfactory, gustatory, or pharmacological effects.
The effectiveness of intraperitoneal (ip) ethanol as a reinforcer for newborn (3-hr-old) rats was tested toward separation of the orosensory and pharmacological sources of ethanol reinforcement. Responsiveness to a test nipple by pups given such pairings was compared with that of pups given unpaired presentations of the nipple and ethanol.
Reinforcement was assessed in terms of response to a surrogate nipple 1 hr after a single pairing of a similar nipple providing water (conditioned stimulus) and ip injection of ethanol (0.125, 0.25, 0.50, or 0.75 g/kg; unconditioned stimulus). Significant effects of ethanol reinforcement occurred with the lower doses (0.125 and 0.25 g/kg); higher doses of ethanol (0.50 and 0.75 g/kg) had no significant reinforcement effect. A second experiment determined that for conditioning with ip ethanol as the unconditioned stimulus, a conditioned stimulus consisting of only ingesting water or only suckling on an empty nipple also yielded significant reinforcing effects of ethanol, although with less strength than their combination. Both reinforcing doses of ethanol, 0.125 and 0.25 g/kg, yielded detectable concentrations of ethanol in the blood 5 min after injection, which were sustained at a significantly lower level 60 min after administration.
These data indicate that aside from possible, and likely weak, hematogenic sources of gustatory and olfactory attributes of ethanol, the basis of ethanol's reinforcement effect in neonatal rats is primarily pharmacological. For the pharmacological effects of ethanol to be reinforcing for the neonatal rat, concurrent appetitive activity on a nipple providing a fluid may be necessary for a substantial effect with this paradigm.
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