Nicotine dependence is associated with increased risk for emotional, cognitive and neurological impairments later in life. This study investigated the long-term effects of nicotine exposure during adolescence and adulthood on measures of depression, anxiety, learning and hippocampal pyramidal cell morphology. Mice (C57BL/6J) received saline or nicotine for 12 days via pumps implanted on postnatal day 32 (adolescent) or 54 (adults). Thirty days after cessation of nicotine/saline, mice were tested for learning using contextual fear conditioning, depression-like behaviors using the forced swim test or anxiety-like behaviors with the elevated plus maze. Brains from nicotine- or saline-exposed mice were processed with Golgi stain for whole neuron reconstruction in the CA1 and CA3 regions of the hippocampus. Results demonstrate higher depression-like responses in both adolescent and adult mice when tested during acute nicotine withdrawal. Heightened depression-like behaviors persisted when tested after 30 days of nicotine abstinence in mice exposed as adolescents, but not adults. Adult, but not adolescent, exposure to nicotine resulted in increased open-arm time when tested after 30 days of abstinence. Nicotine exposure during adolescence caused deficits in contextual fear learning indicated by lower levels of freezing to the context as compared with controls when tested 30 days later. In addition, reduced dendritic length and complexity in the apical CA1 branches in adult mice exposed to nicotine during adolescence were found. These results demonstrate that nicotine exposure and withdrawal can have long-term effects on emotional and cognitive functioning, particularly when nicotine exposure occurs during the critical period of adolescence.
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