Background: Hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function has been demonstrated to be compromised for weeks and even months after alcoholics cease ethanol consumption. Because nonalcoholic subjects with family history-associated increased risk for alcoholism also exhibit compromised HPA function, it is not clear whether defects in the HPA axis of abstinent alcoholics reflect a preexisting condition that may be responsible for increased risk for alcohol abuse versus a persisting adaptational change in response to prolonged alcohol abuse. Consequently, we investigated whether chronic daily ethanol consumption and withdrawal by male Sprague Dawley rats would induce persistent HPA changes consistent with those demonstrated in abstinent alcoholics.
Methods and results: In an initial experiment in which ethanol (5%, w/v) was incrementally introduced to liquid diet over a 1 week period followed by 4 weeks of chronic ethanol consumption, not only ethanol-treated rats but also pair-fed control rats exhibited decreased (p < 0.05 vs. ad-libitum-fed controls) anterior pituitary pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA concentrations and associated decreases in plasma corticosterone and adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) levels for at least 3 weeks after gradual withdrawal of ethanol from the diet. Pair-feeding-induced decreases (p < 0.05) in thymus and spleen weights suggested that the pair-fed controls were likely stressed in this model, probably in response to the marked and irregular suppression of liquid diet consumption immediately after introduction of ethanol. Consequently, a second model was developed in which ethanol was introduced to the liquid diet much more gradually (i.e., over 3 weeks). In contrast with the rapid ethanol-introduction model, this more prolonged ethanol introduction followed by 4 weeks of chronic daily ethanol consumption increased plasma corticosterone levels (p < 0.05), increased adrenal gland weight (p < 0.05), and decreased thymus and spleen weights (both p < 0.01) without altering any of these parameters in the pair-fed controls. Three weeks after gradual withdrawal of ethanol from the diet, anterior pituitary POMC mRNA concentrations were suppressed (p < 0.05) and thymus and spleen weights were increased (p < 0.05) versus both pair-fed and ad-libitum-fed controls, accompanied by trends for decreased basal plasma corticosterone and adrenal weights.
Conclusions: Chronic daily ethanol treatment induced changes in the HPA axis that persisted for at least 3 weeks after complete cessation of ethanol consumption. These persistent alterations in the HPA axis are similar to the aberrant HPA regulation of abstinent alcoholics, sons of alcoholics, Lewis rats, and individuals who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and some types of depression, that is, categories of individuals who all exhibit increased risk for high ethanol consumption. Thus, these chronic daily ethanol-induced persistent changes in the HPA axis may have significant roles in alcohol abstinence syndrome and may increase vulnerability to relapse.