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Associative processes in addiction relapse models: A review of their Pavlovian and instrumental mechanisms, history, and terminology

Belinda Po Pyn Lay,
Published: 23 February 2021

Abstract: Animal models of relapse to drug-seeking have borrowed heavily from associative learning approaches. In studies of relapse-like behaviour, animals learn to self-administer drugs then receive a period of extinction during which they learn to inhibit the operant response. Several triggers can produce a recovery of responding which form the basis of a variety of models. These include the passage of time (spontaneous recovery), drug availability (rapid reacquisition), extinction of an alternative response (resurgence), context change (renewal), drug priming, stress, and cues (reinstatement). In most cases, the behavioural processes driving extinction and recovery in operant drug self-administration studies are similar to those in the Pavlovian and behavioural literature, such as context effects. However, reinstatement in addiction studies have several differences with Pavlovian reinstatement, which have emerged over several decades, in experimental procedures, associative mechanisms, and terminology. Interestingly, in cue-induced reinstatement, drug-paired cues that are present during acquisition are omitted during lever extinction. The unextinguished drug-paired cue may limit the model’s translational relevance to cue exposure therapy and renders its underlying associative mechanisms ambiguous. We review major behavioural theories that explain recovery phenomena, with a particular focus on cue-induced reinstatement because it is a widely used model in addiction. We argue that cue-induced reinstatement may be explained by a combination of behavioural processes, including reacquisition of conditioned reinforcement and Pavlovian to Instrumental Transfer. While there are important differences between addiction studies and the behavioural literature in terminology and procedures, it is clear that understanding associative learning processes is essential for studying relapse.
Keywords: models / Pavlovian and instrumental / addiction studies / behavioural processes / behavioural literature / associative learning / studies of relapse / reacquisition / procedures
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