Rational Nicotine use in schizophrenia has traditionally been explained as ‘self-medication’ of cognitive and/or nicotinic acetylcholinergic receptor (nAChR) abnormalities. Objectives We test this hypothesis in a neurodevelopmental rat model of schizophrenia that shows increased addiction behaviors including enhanced nicotine reinforcement and drug-seeking. Methods Nicotine transdermal patch (5 mg/kg/day vs. placebo × 10 days in adolescence or adulthood) effects on subsequent radial-arm maze learning (15 sessions) and frontal-cortical-striatal nAChR densities (α4β2; [3H]-epibatidine binding) were examined in neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion (NVHL) and SHAM-operated rats. Results NVHL cognitive deficits were not differentially affected by nicotine history compared to SHAMs. Nicotine history produced minimal cognitive effects while increasing food–reward consumption on the maze, compounding with NVHL-induced overconsumption. Acute nicotine (0.5 mg/kg) delivered before the final maze sessions produced modest improvements in maze performance in rats with nicotine patch histories only, but not differentially so in NVHLs. Consistent with in vivo neuroimaging of β2 nAChR binding in schizophrenia smokers vs. non-smokers and healthy controls, adult NVHLs showed 12% reductions in nAChR binding in MPFC (p<0.05) but not ventral striatum (<5% changes, p>.40), whereas nicotine history elevated nAChRs across both regions (>30%, p<0.001) without interacting with NVHLs. Adolescent vs. adult nicotine exposure did not alter nAChRs differentially. Conclusions Although replicating nicotine-induced up-regulation of nAChRs in human smokers and demonstrating NVHL validity in terms of schizophrenia-associated nAChR density patterns, these findings do not support hypotheses explaining increased nicotine use in schizophrenia as reflecting illness-specific effects of nicotine to therapeutically alter cognition or nAChR densities
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