Drugs As Discriminative Stimuli

Although the stimuli that typically govern behavior are external (i.e., located in the environment outside the skin), it is also possible for internal or subjective stimuli to influence behavior. One of the more popular methods to emerge in the field of behavioral pharmacology has been the use of drugs as discriminative stimuli. The procedure consists of establishing a drug as the stimulus, in the presence of which a particular response is reinforced. Typically, to establish a drug as a discriminative stimulus, a single dose of a drug is selected and, following its administration, one of two responses are reinforced; with rodents or nonhuman primates, this usually entails pressing one of two simultaneously available levers, with reinforcement being scheduled intermittently after a fixed number of correct responses. Alternatively, when saline or a placebo is administered, responses on the other device are reinforced. Over a number of experimental sessions, a discrimination develops between the administration of the drug and saline, with the interoceptive (subjective) stimuli produced by the drug seen as guiding or controlling behavior in much the same manner as any external stimulus, such as a visual or auditory stimulus. Once the discrimination has been established, as indicated by the selection of the appropriate response following either the training drug or the saline administration, it is possible to investigate aspects of the drug stimulus in the same way as one might investigate other physical stimuli. It is thus possible to determine gradients of intensity or dose-effect functions with the training drug as well as generalization functions aimed at determining how similar the training drug dose is to a different dose or to another drug substituted for the training stimulus.

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