Post-training glucocorticoid receptor activation during Pavlovian conditioning reduces Pavlovian-instrumental transfer in rats

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Considerable evidence suggests that glucocorticoid receptor activation can enhance memory consolidation in Pavlovian learning tasks. For instance, post-training injections of the synthetic glucocorticoid receptor agonist dexamethasone increased conditioned responding to reward-predictive Pavlovian stimuli. Here we explored whether post-training dexamethasone injections can enhance appetitive Pavlovian learning and amplify the ability of Pavlovian stimuli to invigorate instrumental behaviour, a phenomenon termed Pavlovian-instrumental transfer (PIT). Animals were given 8 training days with two sessions per day, an instrumental training session in the morning and a Pavlovian training session in the afternoon. Dexamethasone or vehicle injections were administered daily immediately after Pavlovian training sessions. In a subsequent transfer test, we measured the general PIT effect, i.e. the enhancement of lever pressing for expected reward during presentation of an appetitive Pavlovian stimulus predictive for the same reward. Repeated high-dose (1.2 mg/kg, i.p.) dexamethasone injections elicited pronounced body weight loss, markedly reduced instrumental performance and left Pavlovian learning unaltered, whereas repeated low-dose (3 μg/kg, i.p.) dexamethasone injections inhibited body weight gain, slightly reduced instrumental performance and left Pavlovian learning unaltered during training. Importantly, in rats subjected to high- and low-dose dexamethasone injections, the overall response rates and the PIT effect were reduced in the transfer test. Thus, dexamethasone given after Pavlovian training was not able to amplify the invigorating effects of Pavlovian stimuli on instrumental action. Considerable evidence suggests that body weight changes after repeated low- and high-dose dexamethasone treatment as observed here are associated with muscle atrophy that could impair response capabilities. However, our data suggest that impaired response capabilities are not a major factor accounting for reduced PIT in dexamethasone-treated animals.


▸ Pavlovian stimuli can enhance instrumental action (Pavlovian-Instrumental Transfer). ▸ Dexamethasone effects on Pavlovian-Instrumental Transfer were examined in rats. ▸ Dexamethasone reduced Pavlovian-Instrumental Transfer. ▸ Dexamethasone-induced body weight loss seem not to account for this effect.

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