According to Gould, contextual learning taps into the part of the brain that is involved in declarative memory processes that define who we are, such as memories of family, wedding days, or graduating from school. This type of learning involves an area of the brain called the hippocampus, an area that is involved in strengthening short-term memories, and putting them into long-term memory storage, thus making those memories the ones that define who we are.
Using an animal model, Gould and Gulick examined the effects of alcohol and nicotine on learning to determine what happens as the drugs are combined at different doses and different stages of administration.
"Our study showed that initially nicotine in a dose-dependent manner reverses alcohol-induced deficits in learning, but tolerance develops for this effect of nicotine with continued administration," Gould said.
"We also found that a low dose of alcohol reverses nicotine withdrawal-associated deficits in learning. Furthermore, we found that chronic nicotine produces cross-tolerance to the effects of a low dose of alcohol on learning."
"If we can understand how these neural processes are changing and how they interact, then when someone is going through withdrawal or experiencing a cognitive deficit because of one of these two substances, we then may be able to use a therapeutic that blocks or activates a receptor, or that blocks a certain pathway which prevents the occurrence of the withdrawal symptoms and falling back into relapse," said Gould.
The study was presented on Nov. 6 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego and will be published in the peer-reviewed journal, Psychopharmacology.
It was funded by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).