Background: A systems biology approach based on the assembly and interrogation of gene regulatory networks, or interactomes, was used to study neuroadaptation processes associated with the transition to alcohol dependence at the molecular level.
Results: Using a rat model of dependent and non-dependent alcohol self-administration, we reverse engineered a global transcriptional regulatory network during protracted abstinence, a period when relapse rates are highest. We then interrogated the network to identify master regulator genes that mechanistically regulate brain region-specific signatures associated with dependent and non-dependent alcohol self-administration. Among these, the gene coding for the glucocorticoid receptor was independently identified as a master regulator in multiple brain regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, central nucleus of the amygdala, and ventral tegmental area, consistent with the view that brain reward and stress systems are dysregulated during protracted abstinence. Administration of the glucocorticoid antagonist mifepristone in either the nucleus accumbens or ventral tegmental area selectively decreased dependent, excessive, alcohol self-administration in rats but had no effect on non-dependent, moderate, alcohol self-administration.
Conclusions: Our study suggests that assembly and analysis of regulatory networks is an effective strategy for the identification of key regulators of long-term neuroplastic changes within specific brain regions that play a functional role in alcohol dependence. More specifically, our results support a key role for regulatory networks downstream of the glucocorticoid receptor in excessive alcohol drinking during protracted alcohol abstinence.