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Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2009 May;2(2):184-94.

Forced abstinence model of relapse to study pharmacological treatments of substance use disorder.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln NE 68588-0308, USA.


Understanding and preventing relapse to drug use is one of the most difficult challenges faced by clinicians and practitioners in the struggle to help people remain abstinent. In this paper, we review basic preclinical research on forced abstinence periods that identify the neural substrates involved and neural adaptations that occur after a drug-free period. Our attention focuses on forced abstinence after self-administration because of its promise for translational research in the development of candidate medications to reduce relapse. This model requires subjects (often rats) to initially acquire drug self-administration. However, rather than extinguishing behavior with daily drug-free sessions as in the reinstatement model of drug seeking, subjects are removed from the self-administration situation and do not receive any exposure to the drug. Notably, the integrity of the drug-taking behavior and the drug-associated cues in the drug-taking environment are preserved because they are not experienced in the absence of the drug. Research shows time dependent increases in drug-seeking following forced abstinence periods. More so, neural substrates and adaptations within the mesocorticolimbic system and the nigrostriatal system have been identified that contribute to increased drug seeking following abstinence. From a translational perspective, behavioral and pharmacological treatment of substance use disorder often starts during this initial abstinence period (either forced or voluntary). The forced abstinence model simulates some of the features of this treatment situation and thus allows for the study of potential treatments that alter relapse of drug-seeking behaviors along with the accompanying neurobiological changes.

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