Background: Postweaning social isolation in rats produces profound and long-lasting cognitive and behavioral deficits in adult animals. Importantly, this housing manipulation alters sensitivity to a number of drugs of abuse including ethanol. However, most studies with ethanol have utilized continuous or limited home-cage access to examine interactions between juvenile social experience and drinking. More recently, social isolation was shown to increased ethanol responding in a “dipper” model of self-administration (Deehan et al., 2007). In the current study, we utilize a “sipper” operant self-administration model to distinguish the effects of isolation rearing on ethanol seeking- and drinking-related behaviors.
Methods: Postweaning juvenile male Long-Evans rats were placed into 2 housing groups for 6 weeks: one group consisted of individually housed animals; the second group was housed 4 animals per cage. Following the isolation period, anxiety-like behavior was assessed to confirm the efficacy of the isolation procedure. In some animals, ethanol drinking in the home cage was assessed using a continuous access, 2-bottle choice paradigm. All animals were then individually housed and trained to lever-press for a sipper tube containing either an ethanol solution or a sucrose solution.
Results: Postweaning social isolation increased the expression of anxiety-like behavior in the elevated plus maze but not the light-dark box. Ethanol consumption was also increased during continuous home-cage access with the 2-bottle choice paradigm. During operant self-administration, isolation housing increased the response rate and increased ethanol consumption but did not alter responding for or consumption of sucrose. The housing manipulation did not change the total number of lever responses during extinction sessions. Paired-pulse inhibition deficits that are characteristic of juvenile isolation remained intact after prolonged experience with sucrose self-administration.
Discussion: The effects of postweaning social isolation on ethanol drinking in the home cage are also manifest during operant self-administration. Importantly, these alterations in adult operant self-administration are ethanol-specific.