Long-term exposure to nicotine alters brain circuits and induces profound changes in decision-making strategies, affecting behaviors both related and unrelated to drug seeking and consumption. Using an intracranial self-stimulation reward-based foraging task, we investigated the impact of chronic nicotine on the trade-off between exploitation and exploration, and the role of ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine (DA) neuron activity in decision-making unrelated to nicotine-seeking. Model-based and archetypal analysis revealed a substantial inter-individual variability in decision-making strategies, with mice passively exposed to chronic nicotine visiting more frequently options associated with higher reward probability and therefore shifting toward a more exploitative profile compared to non-exposed animals. We then mimicked the effect of chronic nicotine on the tonic activity of VTA DA neurons using optogenetics, and found that photo-stimulated mice had a behavioral phenotype very close to that of mice exposed to nicotine, suggesting that the dopaminergic control of the exploration/exploitation balance is altered under nicotine exposure. Our results thus reveal a key role of tonic midbrain DA in the exploration/exploitation trade-off and highlight a potential mechanism by which nicotine affects decision-making.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience