Neurochemical mechanisms underlying alcohol withdrawal

Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(1):13-24.


More than 50 years ago, C.K. Himmelsbach first suggested that physiological mechanisms responsible for maintaining a stable state of equilibrium (i.e., homeostasis) in the patient's body and brain are responsible for drug tolerance and the drug withdrawal syndrome. In the latter case, he suggested that the absence of the drug leaves these same homeostatic mechanisms exposed, leading to the withdrawal syndrome. This theory provides the framework for a majority of neurochemical investigations of the adaptations that occur in alcohol dependence and how these adaptations may precipitate withdrawal. This article examines the Himmelsbach theory and its application to alcohol withdrawal; reviews the animal models being used to study withdrawal; and looks at the postulated neuroadaptations in three systems-the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter system, the glutamate neurotransmitter system, and the calcium channel system that regulates various processes inside neurons. The role of these neuroadaptations in withdrawal and the clinical implications of this research also are considered.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / metabolism
  • Alcoholism / prevention & control
  • Animals
  • Calcium Channels / metabolism*
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / metabolism*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / prevention & control
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism*


  • Calcium Channels
  • Ethanol
  • Glutamic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid