The central amygdala (CeA) is uniquely situated to function as an interface between stress- and addiction-related processes. This brain region has long been attributed an important role in aversive (e.g., fear) conditioning, as well as the negative emotional states that define alcohol dependence and withdrawal. The CeA is the major output region of the amygdala and receives complex inputs from other amygdaloid nuclei as well as regions that integrate sensory information from the external environment (e.g., thalamus, cortex). The CeA is functionally and anatomically divided into lateral and medial subdivisions that themselves are interconnected and populated by inhibitory interneurons and projections neurons. Neuropeptides are highly expressed in the CeA, particularly in the lateral subdivision, and the role of many of these peptides in regulating anxiety- and alcohol-related behaviors has been localized to the CeA. This review focuses on two of these peptides, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and neuropeptide Y (NPY), that exhibit a high degree of neuroanatomical overlap (e.g., in CeA) and largely opposite behavioral profiles (e.g., in regulating anxiety- and alcohol-related behavior). CRF and NPY systems in the CeA appear to be recruited and/or up-regulated during the transition to alcohol dependence. These and other neuropeptides may converge on GABA synapses in CeA to control projection neurons and downstream effector regions, thereby translating negative affective states into anxiety-like behavior and excessive alcohol consumption.
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