Conditioned and sensitized responses to stimulant drugs in humans (2007)

COMMENTS: Explains how dopamine dysregulation can aggravate relapse, narrow users’ interests and perturb decision-making, thus accounting for a wide range of addiction-related symptoms.

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Nov 15;31(8):1601-13.

Leyton M.

Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, 1033 Pine Avenue West, Montreal, Quebec, CANADA H3A 1A1. [email protected]


In animal models considerable evidence suggests that increased motivation to seek and ingest drugs of abuse are related to conditioned and sensitized activations of the mesolimbic dopamine (DA) system. Direct evidence for these phenomena in humans, though, is sparse. However, recent studies support the following.

First, the acute administration of drugs of abuse across pharmacological classes increases extracellular DA levels within the human ventral striatum.

Second, individual differences in the magnitude of this response correlate with rewarding effects of the drugs and the personality trait of novelty seeking.

Third, transiently diminishing DA transmission in humans decreases drug craving, the propensity to preferentially respond to reward-paired stimuli, and the ability to sustain responding for future drug reward.

Finally, very recent studies suggest that repeated exposure to stimulant drugs, either on the street or in the laboratory, can lead to conditioned and sensitized behavioral responses and DA release.

In contrast to these findings, though, in individuals with a long history of substance abuse, drug-induced DA release is decreased. This diminished DA release could reflect two different phenomena. First, it is possible that drug withdrawal related decrements in DA cell function persist longer than previously suspected.

Second, drug-paired stimuli may gain marked conditioned control over the release of DA and the expression of sensitization leading to reduced DA release when drug-related cues are absent.

Based on these observations a two-factor hypothesis of the role of DA in drug abuse is proposed.

In the presence of drug cues, conditioned and sensitized DA release would occur leading to focused drug-seeking behavior.

In comparison, in the absence of drug-related stimuli DA function would be reduced, diminishing the ability of individuals to sustain goal-directed behavior and long-term objectives.

This conditioned control of the expression of sensitized DA release could aggravate susceptibility to relapse, narrow the range of interests and perturb decision-making, accounting for a wide range of addiction related phenomena.