For alcoholics, the urge to drink is Pavlovian, study suggests

Humans aren’t much different from animals. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, we associate environmental cues with rewards. That’s innocent enough when seeing your sneakers makes you want to run, but not when seeing the liquor store makes you want to drink.

Pavlovian cues that predict alcohol use can lead us toward addiction. Sometimes the cues themselves become desirable, says a new study in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience by researchers from Concordia University.

“Alcohol addiction is compounded by our ability to learn about predictive cues,” says lead author and psychology professor Nadia Chaudhri.

“Conditioned reactions to those cues can trigger behaviours that result in drinking, like turning into the SAQ or reaching for a beer.”

People may keep drinking because of the pleasure derived from our interactions with the cues.

The study suggests that to change a habit you shouldn’t just focus on the booze, but on all the factors surrounding alcohol use.

“These preferences could be driven by the sensory properties of alcohol, like its taste, smell and how it looks,” Chaudhri said. It is important for people to realize that drinking alcohol is a complex behaviour.”

Chaudhri and her co-authors worked with 25 lab rats conditioned to associate a specific cue with ethanol – the main kind of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks.

The researchers paired a visual cue with the ethanol so that rats would come to expect alcohol every time they saw the cue. Eventually, when the cue was presented, rats approached the location where alcohol was delivered. But after a time they stopped performing this behaviour and began approaching and interacting with the cue.

This happened even though the rats gained nothing by playing with the cue.

The researchers noted that the rats would work to earn cues that were previously linked to alcohol, even when alcohol was not dispensed with that cue. These results suggest that a cue by itself can become desirable.

“Lots of our behaviours are governed by fundamental learning mechanisms that are also present in other animal species,” says Chaudhri. “By modelling these behaviours in rats we can better understand the factors that control how they are acquired and maintained in humans.”

She said we can use animal models to figure out ways to minimize unwanted behaviours, such as responding to cues that predict alcohol.

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