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Drug cue induced overshadowing: selective disruption of natural reward processing by cigarette cues amongst abstinent but not satiated smokers

  • T. P. Freeman (a1), C. J. A. Morgan (a1), T. Beesley (a2) and H. V. Curran (a1)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.



Addicts show both reward processing deficits and increased salience attribution to drug cues. However, no study to date has demonstrated that salience attribution to drug cues can directly modulate inferences of reward value to non-drug cues. Associative learning depends on salience: a more salient predictor of an outcome will ‘overshadow’ a less salient predictor of the same outcome. Similarly, blocking, a demonstration that learning depends on prediction error, can be influenced by the salience of the cues employed.


This study investigated whether salient drug cues might interact with neutral cues predicting financial reward in an associative learning task indexing blocking and overshadowing in satiated smokers (n=24), abstaining smokers (n=24) and non-smoking controls (n=24). Attentional bias towards drug cues, craving and expired CO were also indexed.


Abstaining smokers showed drug cue induced overshadowing, attributing higher reward value to drug cues than to neutral cues that were equally predictive of reward. Overshadowing was positively correlated with expired CO levels, which, in turn, were correlated with craving in abstainers. An automatic attentional bias towards cigarette cues was found in abstainers only.


These findings provide the first evidence that drug cues interact with reward processing in a drug dependent population.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: T. P. Freeman, B.Sc., Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, Clinical Health Psychology, University College London, Gower St, London WC1E 6BT, UK. (Email:


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