Impact of the Innate Immune Response in the Actions of Ethanol on the Central Nervous System

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2016 Nov;40(11):2260-2270. doi: 10.1111/acer.13208. Epub 2016 Sep 21.


The innate immune response in the central nervous system (CNS) participates in both synaptic plasticity and neural damage. Emerging evidence from human and animal studies supports the role of the neuroimmune system response in many actions of ethanol (EtOH) on the CNS. Research studies have shown that alcohol stimulates brain immune cells, microglia, and astrocytes, by activating innate immune receptors Toll-like receptors (TLRs) and NOD-like receptors (inflammasome NLRs) triggering signaling pathways, which culminate in the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines that lead to neuroinflammation. This review focuses on evidence that indicates the participation of TLRs and the inflammasome NLRs signaling response in many effects of EtOH on the CNS, such as neuroinflammation associated with brain damage, cognitive and behavioral dysfunction, and adolescent brain development alterations. It also reviews findings that indicate the role of TLR4-dependent signaling immune molecules in alcohol consumption, reward, and addiction. The research data suggest that overactivation of TLR4 or NLRs increases pro-inflammatory cytokines and mediators to cause neural damage in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, while modest TLR4 activation, along with the generation of certain cytokines and chemokines in specific brain areas (e.g., amygdala, ventral tegmental area), modulate neurotransmission, alcohol drinking, and alcohol rewards. Elimination of TLR4 and NLRP3 abolishes many neuroimmune effects of EtOH. Despite much progress being made in this area, there are some research gaps and unanswered questions that this review discusses. Finally, potential therapies that target neuroimmune pathways to treat neuropathological and behavioral consequences of alcohol abuse are also evaluated.

Keywords: Alcohol; Behavior; Brain Damage; Neuroimmune Signaling; Neuroinflammation; TLR4 and NLRP3.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development
  • Alcohol Drinking / immunology
  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism
  • Alcoholism / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System / drug effects*
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / immunology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / pharmacology*
  • Ethanol / immunology
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / drug effects*
  • NLR Proteins / metabolism
  • Neuroimmunomodulation / drug effects*
  • Toll-Like Receptors / metabolism


  • Biomarkers
  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • NLR Proteins
  • Toll-Like Receptors
  • Ethanol