Focus on: neurotransmitter systems

Alcohol Res Health. 2011;34(1):106-20.


Neurotransmitter systems have been long recognized as important targets of the developmental actions of alcohol (i.e., ethanol). Short- and long-term effects of ethanol on amino acid (e.g., γ-aminobutyric acid and glutamate) and biogenic amine (e.g., serotonin and dopamine) neurotransmitters have been demonstrated in animal models of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Researchers have detected ethanol effects after exposure during developmental periods equivalent to the first, second, and third trimesters of human pregnancy. Results support the recommendation that pregnant women should abstain from drinking-even small quantities-as effects of ethanol on neurotransmitter systems have been detected at low levels of exposure. Recent studies have elucidated new mechanisms and/or consequences of the actions of ethanol on amino acid and biogenic amine neuro-transmitter systems. Alterations in these neurotransmitter systems could, in part, be responsible for many of the conditions associated with FASD, including (1) learning, memory, and attention deficits; (2) motor coordination impairments; (3) abnormal responsiveness to stress; and (4) increased susceptibility to neuropsychiatric disorders, such as substance abuse and depression, and also neurological disorders, such as epilepsy and sudden infant death syndrome. However, future research is needed to conclusively establish a causal relationship between these conditions and developmental dysfunctions in neurotransmitter systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Biogenic Amines / metabolism
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / diagnosis
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnosis
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / metabolism*
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Biogenic Amines
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid