Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

A History of Reinforcement: The Role of Reinforcement Schedules in Behavior Pharmacology

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

A History of Reinforcement: The Role of Reinforcement Schedules in Behavior Pharmacology

Article excerpt

Operant behavior maintained by schedules of intermittent reinforcement has been extensively used for the investigation of the behavioral effects of drugs that affect the central nervous system. While the primary purpose of such research has been the screening of novel compounds in the search for clinically effective drugs, much else has been discovered about drug action and behavioral processes. Current research focuses on problems of social and clinical importance, such as cocaine abuse, and involves the development of novel and modified reinforcement schedules to address problems thrown up by research involving drugs. There are also new challenges posed in studying the behavior of transgenic knock-out mice. After more than 40 years, reinforcement schedules continue to be significant research techniques in behavior pharmacology. It is important that researchers are fully trained in behavior analysis in order to contribute to this rapidly developing area of behavioral neuroscience.


In parallel with the development of scientific approaches to psychology, there were massive developments in our knowledge and understanding of the brain and central nervous system in the twentieth century and this progress has accelerated in recent years. Practitioners of both disciplines are aware that each discipline needs the other to provide a more complete account of human psychology and behavior. However, there is a tendency to regard brain processes as more "basic" in some sense, and to expect that psychological or behavioral processes will, in the end, be explained by brain processes. Whether or not one accepts this "reductionist" philosophical position, scientific and practical considerations show that it is necessary to investigate both behavioral processes and brain processes, and the interaction between the two.

From a scientific perspective, behavioral processes are interesting in their own right, and knowledge of them and their applications can be developed without necessarily knowing about the correlated brain processes. However, scientific curiosity would lead us to investigate, where possible, the brain processes that go in parallel with behavioral or psychological phenomena. From the perspective of neuroscience the argument is even more compelling: we hardly ever investigate a process in the brain or central nervous without a parallel interest in its relationship to psychological functioning. As soon as we ask, "How does this brain process affect behavior?" we require an adequate account of behavioral processes to which we can relate our study of brain function.

In broad terms, behavioral neuroscience is the interdisciplinary field of study that seeks to use behavioral techniques to understand brain function, and to use techniques of neuroscience to elucidate behavioral processes. Psychology and neuroscience come together in various areas of this interdisciplinary field, and to date behavior pharmacology has been one of the most productive of these areas.

The last 50 years have seen the development of the modem pharmaceutical industry, which has the capacity to synthesize new chemical compounds that may be useful in treating human diseases and ameliorating psychological distress of one kind or another. A major section of the industry is concerned with agents that may alter the functioning of the human central nervous system. In the development of a new drug that affects the human central nervous system many practical, legal and scientific issues must be addressed. As well as safety issues (the drug may be toxic to many species, or especially to humans, or it may damage certain types of tissues or impair certain physiological functions, etc.), the drug must pass various positive tests as well. Even if it is chemically similar to a compound already in use for the treatment of anxiety, for example, it may not itself be effective. If it is effective, how should it be administered, and on what type of dosing regime? …

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