The use of drugs as discriminative stimuli has provided a wealth of information on the way drugs are similar to more conventional environmental stimuli in their ability to control and modify behavior. The procedure has also increased our understanding of the neuropharmacological mechanisms that operate to produce the constellation of effects associated with those drugs. The technique has wide generality and has been studied in several species, including humans—in whom the effects are quite similar to those of nonhumans.

Because it is believed that the subjective effects of a drug are critical to its abuse potential, the study of drugs of abuse as discriminative stimuli takes on added significance. A better understanding of the effects of drugs of abuse as pharmacologically subjective stimuli provides a means by which to evaluate possible pharmacological as well as behavioral approaches to the treatment of drug abuse. For example, a drug that prevents or antagonizes the discriminative-stimulus effects (and presumably the neuropharmacological actions) of an abused drug might be an effective medication to permit individuals to diminish their intake of abused drugs, because the stimuli usually associated with its effects will no longer occur. Similarly, although little work has been performed on the manipulation of environmental stimuli correlated with the drug stimulus, it might be possible to design innovative treatment strategies in which other stimuli compete with the subjective discriminative-stimulus effects of the abused drug. Thus, a basic experimental procedure such as drug discrimination has provided a useful experimental tool for understanding the behavioral and neuropharmacological effects of abused drugs.

Further work may help design and implement novel treatment approaches to modifying the behavioral and environmental conditions surrounding the effects of abused drugs and thus result in diminished behavioral control by substances of abuse.

(SEE ALSO: Abuse Liability of Drugs; Drug Types; Research, Animal Model)


Barrett, J. E., & Gleeson, S. (1991). Anxiolytic effects of 5-HT1A agonists, 5-HT3 antagonists and benzodiazepines. In R.J. Rodgers & S.J. Cooper (Eds.), 5-HT1A agonists, 5-HT3 antagonists and benzodiazepines: Their comparative behavioral pharmacology. New York: Wiley. Johanson, C. E., & Barrett, J. E. (1993). The discriminative stimulus effects of cocaine in pigeons. Journal of Phamacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 267, 1-8.

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