The role of acetylcholine in cocaine addiction

Mark J. Williams, Bryon Adinoff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Central nervous system cholinergic neurons arise from several discrete sources, project to multiple brain regions, and exert specific effects on reward, learning, and memory. These processes are critical for the development and persistence of addictive disorders. Although other neurotransmitters, including dopamine, glutamate, and serotonin, have been the primary focus of drug research to date, a growing preclinical literature reveals a critical role of acetylcholine (ACh) in the experience and progression of drug use. This review will present and integrate the findings regarding the role of ACh in drug dependence, with a primary focus on cocaine and the muscarinic ACh system. Mesostriatal ACh appears to mediate reinforcement through its effect on reward, satiation, and aversion, and chronic cocaine administration produces neuroadaptive changes in the striatum. ACh is further involved in the acquisition of conditional associations that underlie cocaine self-administration and context-dependent sensitization, the acquisition of associations in conditioned learning, and drug procurement through its effects on arousal and attention. Long-term cocaine use may induce neuronal alterations in the brain that affect the ACh system and impair executive function, possibly contributing to the disruptions in decision making that characterize this population. These primarily preclinical studies suggest that ACh exerts a myriad of effects on the addictive process and that persistent changes to the ACh system following chronic drug use may exacerbate the risk of relapse during recovery. Ultimately, ACh modulation may be a potential target for pharmacological treatment interventions in cocaine-addicted subjects. However, the complicated neurocircuitry of the cholinergic system, the multiple ACh receptor subtypes, the confluence of excitatory and inhibitory ACh inputs, and the unique properties of the striatal cholinergic interneurons suggest that a precise target of cholinergic manipulation will be required to impact substance use in the clinical population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1779-1797
Number of pages19
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jul 2008


  • Acetylcholine
  • Attention
  • Cocaine dependence
  • Executive functioning
  • Learning and memory
  • Reward

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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