Acute and chronic ethanol modulate dopamine D2-subtype receptor responses in ventral tegmental area GABA neurons

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2009 May;33(5):804-11. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2009.00899.x. Epub 2009 Mar 6.


Background: Ventral tegmental area (VTA) gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurons appear to be critical substrates underlying the acute and chronic effects of ethanol on dopamine (DA) neurotransmission in the mesocorticolimbic system implicated in drug reward. VTA GABA neuron firing rate is reduced by acute ethanol and enhanced by DA via D2 receptor activation. The objective of this study was to evaluate the role of D2 receptors in acute ethanol inhibition of VTA GABA neuron activity, as well as the adaptation of D2 receptors by chronic ethanol consumption.

Methods: Using electrophysiological methods, we evaluated the effects of intraperitoneal ethanol on DA activation of VTA GABA neurons, the effects of DA antagonists on ethanol inhibition of their firing rate, as well as adaptations in firing rate following chronic ethanol consumption. Using single cell quantitative RT-polymerase chain reaction (PCR), we evaluated the expression of VTA GABA neuron D2 receptors in rats consuming ethanol versus pair-fed controls.

Results: In acute ethanol studies, microelectrophoretic activation of VTA GABA neurons by DA was inhibited by acute intraperitoneal ethanol, and intravenous administration of the D2 antagonist eticlopride blocked ethanol suppression of VTA GABA neuron firing rate. In chronic ethanol studies, while there were no signs of withdrawal at 24 hours, or significant adaptation in firing rate or response to acute ethanol, there was a significant down-regulation in the expression of D2 receptors in ethanol-consuming rats versus pair-fed controls.

Conclusions: Inhibition of DA activation of VTA GABA neuron firing rate by ethanol, as well as eticlopride block of ethanol inhibition of VTA GABA neuron firing rate, suggests an interaction between ethanol and DA neurotransmission via D2 receptors, perhaps via enhanced DA release in the VTA subsequent to ethanol inhibition of GABA neurons. Down-regulation of VTA GABA neuron D2 receptors by chronic ethanol might result from persistent DA release onto GABA neurons.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / drug effects
  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Male
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / physiology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / drug effects
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / physiology*


  • Receptors, Dopamine D2
  • Ethanol
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid