Early-Life Social Isolation Stress Increases Kappa Opioid Receptor Responsiveness and Downregulates the Dopamine System

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Aug;41(9):2263-74. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.21. Epub 2016 Feb 10.


Chronic early-life stress increases vulnerability to alcoholism and anxiety disorders during adulthood. Similarly, rats reared in social isolation (SI) during adolescence exhibit augmented ethanol intake and anxiety-like behaviors compared with group housed (GH) rats. Prior studies suggest that disruption of dopamine (DA) signaling contributes to SI-associated behaviors, although the mechanisms underlying these alterations are not fully understood. Kappa opioid receptors (KORs) have an important role in regulating mesolimbic DA signaling, and other kinds of stressors have been shown to augment KOR function. Therefore, we tested the hypothesis that SI-induced increases in KOR function contribute to the dysregulation of NAc DA and the escalation in ethanol intake associated with SI. Our ex vivo voltammetry experiments showed that the inhibitory effects of the kappa agonist U50,488 on DA release were significantly enhanced in the NAc core and shell of SI rats. Dynorphin levels in NAc tissue were observed to be lower in SI rats. Microdialysis in freely moving rats revealed that SI was also associated with reduced baseline DA levels, and pretreatment with the KOR antagonist nor-binaltorphimine (nor-BNI) increased DA levels selectively in SI subjects. Acute ethanol elevated DA in SI and GH rats and nor-BNI pretreatment augmented this effect in SI subjects, while having no effect on ethanol-stimulated DA release in GH rats. Together, these data suggest that KORs may have increased responsiveness following SI, which could lead to hypodopaminergia and contribute to an increased drive to consume ethanol. Indeed, SI rats exhibited greater ethanol intake and preference and KOR blockade selectively attenuated ethanol intake in SI rats. Collectively, the findings that nor-BNI reversed SI-mediated hypodopaminergic state and escalated ethanol intake suggest that KOR antagonists may represent a promising therapeutic strategy for the treatment of alcohol use disorders, particularly in cases linked to chronic early-life stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Male
  • Naltrexone / analogs & derivatives
  • Nucleus Accumbens / drug effects
  • Nucleus Accumbens / metabolism*
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa / metabolism*
  • Social Isolation*
  • Stress, Psychological*


  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa
  • norbinaltorphimine
  • Ethanol
  • Naltrexone
  • Dopamine