It is widely accepted that stress, anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse-related disorders are in large part controlled by corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) receptors. However, evidence is accumulating that some of the actions on these receptors are mediated not by CRF, but by a family of related Urocortin (Ucn) peptides Ucn1, Ucn2 and Ucn3. The initial narrow focus on CRF as the potential main player acting on CRF receptors appears outdated. Instead it is suggested that CRF and the individual Ucns act in a complementary and brain region-specific fashion to regulate anxiety-related behaviors and alcohol consumption. This review, based on a symposium held in 2011 at the research meeting on "Alcoholism and Stress" in Volterra, Italy, highlights recent evidence for regulation of these behaviors by Ucns. In studies on stress and anxiety, the roles of Ucns, and in particular Ucn1, appear more visible in experiments analyzing adaptation to stressors rather than testing basal anxiety states. Based on these studies, we propose that the contribution of Ucn1 to regulating mood follows a U-like pattern with both high and low activity of Ucn1 contributing to high anxiety states. In studies on alcohol use disorders, the CRF system appears to regulate not only dependence-induced drinking, but also binge drinking and even basal consumption of alcohol. While dependence-induced and binge drinking rely on the actions of CRF on CRFR1 receptors, alcohol consumption in models of these behaviors is inhibited by actions of Ucns on CRFR2. In contrast, alcohol preference is positively influenced by actions of Ucn1, which is capable of acting on both CRFR1 and CRFR2. Because of complex distribution of Ucns in the nervous system, advances in this field will critically depend on development of new tools allowing site-specific analyses of the roles of Ucns and CRF.
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