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PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e42886. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042886. Epub 2012 Aug 3.

Ethanol seeking by Long Evans rats is not always a goal-directed behavior.

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College of Pharmacy, Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, United States of America.



Two parallel and interacting processes are said to underlie animal behavior, whereby learning and performance of a behavior is at first via conscious and deliberate (goal-directed) processes, but after initial acquisition, the behavior can become automatic and stimulus-elicited (habitual). With respect to instrumental behaviors, animal learning studies suggest that the duration of training and the action-outcome contingency are two factors involved in the emergence of habitual seeking of "natural" reinforcers (e.g., sweet solutions, food or sucrose pellets). To rigorously test whether behaviors reinforced by abused substances such as ethanol, in particular, similarly become habitual was the primary aim of this study.


Male Long Evans rats underwent extended or limited operant lever press training with 10% sucrose/10% ethanol (10S10E) reinforcement (variable interval (VI) or (VR) ratio schedule of reinforcement), or with 10% sucrose (10S) reinforcement (VI schedule only). Once training and pretesting were complete, the impact of outcome devaluation on operant behavior was evaluated after lithium chloride injections were paired with the reinforcer, or unpaired 24 hours later. After limited, but not extended instrumental training, lever pressing by groups trained under VR with 10S10E and under VI with 10S was sensitive to outcome devaluation. In contrast, responding by both the extended and limited training 10S10E VI groups was not sensitive to ethanol devaluation during the test for habitual behavior.


Operant behavior by rats trained to self-administer an ethanol-sucrose solution showed variable sensitivity to a change in the value of ethanol, with relative insensitivity developing sooner in animals that received time-variable ethanol reinforcement during training sessions. One important implication, with respect to substance abuse in humans, is that initial learning about the relationship between instrumental actions and the opportunity to consume ethanol-containing drinks can influence the time course for the development or expression of habitual ethanol seeking behavior.

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