Vulnerable Periods During Nicotine Withdrawal Associated with Relapse

My name is Augustin Hennings, and I am a rising senior here at the College. I am a Neuroscience and Hispanic Studies double major and I am very excited to be leading my own research project this summer in the psychology lab of Dr. Barnet. My research concerns nicotine, a widely used drug with known neurotoxic effects. My research investigates the effect of nicotine on anxiety and stress using an animal model of anxiety called Light-Enhanced Startle (LES). Rats are naturally more anxious in bright light (where they might be more visible to predators), and LES measures anxiety as enhanced startle reactivity to brief bursts of white noise in the presence versus absence of a bright light. Our research has shown that first-time acute nicotine exposure is anxiogenic in the LES paradigm, revealing that nicotine enhances vulnerability to the negative effects of environmental stress. This is an important observation because enhanced vulnerability to the effects of stress can predispose the development of addictive dependence as well as psychiatric disease. My summer project extends our earlier research and seeks to establish the LES paradigm as an experimental model of nicotine withdrawal. There is a current gap in the literature regarding LES and nicotine withdrawal, and my research will expand on the only other published paper using this paradigm.  Following nicotine exposure intended to produce dependence, anxiety measured in LES will be assessed at various points during the withdrawal (post-nicotine) period. The goal is to identify how anxiety during withdrawal varies and thereby establish possible critical periods where vulnerability to relapse may be enhanced. Identifying critical periods of anxiety and vulnerability to relapse is important to developing more targeted and effective pharmacological as well as cognitive-behavioral smoking cessation treatments.

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