[Epigenetic mechanisms and alcohol use disorders: a potential therapeutic target]

Biol Aujourdhui. 2017;211(1):83-91. doi: 10.1051/jbio/2017014. Epub 2017 Jul 6.
[Article in French]


Alcohol use disorder is a devastating illness with a profound health impact, and its development is dependent on both genetic and environmental factors. This disease occurs over time and requires changes in brain gene expression. There is converging evidence suggesting that the epigenetic processes may play a role in the alcohol-induced gene regulations and behavior such as the intervention of DNA methylation and histone acetylation. Histone acetylation, like histone methylation, is a highly dynamic process regulated by two classes of enzymes: histone acetyltransferases and histone deacetylases (HDACs). To date, 18 human HDAC isoforms have been characterized, and based on their sequence homologies and cofactor dependencies, they have been phylogenetically categorized into 4 main classes: classes I, II (a and b), III, and IV. In the brain, expression of the different classes of HDACs varies between cell types and also in their subcellular localization (nucleus and/or cytosol). Furthermore, we recently showed that a single ethanol exposure inhibits HDAC activity and increases both H3 and H4 histone acetylation within the amygdala of rats. In the brain of alcoholic patients, ethanol has been shown to induce histone-related and DNA methylation epigenetic changes in several reward regions involved in reward processes such as hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. We recently demonstrated alteration of histone H3 acetylation levels in several brain regions from the reward circuit of rats made dependent to alcohol after chronic and intermittent exposure to ethanol vapor. In neuronal cell line culture, ethanol was shown to induce HDAC expression. In mouse and rat brain, numerous studies reported epigenetic alterations following ethanol exposure. We also demonstrated that both the expression of genes and the activity of enzymes involved in epigenetic mechanisms are changed after repeated administrations of ethanol in mice sensitized to the motor stimulant effect of ethanol (a model of drug-induced neuroplasticity). Numerous studies have shown that HDAC inhibitors are able to counter ethanol-induced behaviors and the ethanol-induced changes in the levels of HDAC and/or levels of acetylated HDAC. For example, trichostatin A (TSA) treatment caused the reversal of ethanol-induced tolerance, anxiety, and ethanol drinking by inhibiting HDAC activity, thereby increasing histone acetylation in the amygdala of rats. Another study demonstrated that TSA prevented the development of ethanol withdrawal induced anxiety in rats by rescuing deficits in histone acetylation induced by increased HDAC activity in the amygdala. We have demonstrated that treatment with the HDAC inhibitor sodium butyrate blocks both the development and the expression of ethanol-induced behavioral sensitization in mice. In this context, converging evidence indicates that HDAC inhibitors could be useful in counteracting ethanol-induced gene regulations via epigenetic mechanisms, that is, HDAC inhibitors could affect different acetylation sites and may also alter the expression of different genes that could in turn counteract the effect of ethanol. Recent work in rodents has shown that systemic administration of pan HDAC class I and II inhibitors, TSA and N-hydroxy-N-phenyl-octanediamide [SuberoylAnilide Hydroxamic Acid] (SAHA), and of the more selective inhibitor (mainly HDAC1 and HDAC9) MS-275, decrease binge-like alcohol drinking in mice. SAHA selectively reduced ethanol operant self-administration and seeking in rats. Our previous study revealed that MS-275 strongly decreased operant ethanol self-administration in alcohol-dependent rats when administered 30 minutes before the session at the second day of injection. We also demonstrated that intra-cerebro-ventricular infusion of MS-275 increases acetylation of Histone 4 within the nucleus accumbens and the dorsolateral striatum, associated to a decrease in ethanol self-administration by about 75%. MS-275 also diminished both the motivation to consume ethanol (25% decrease), relapse (by about 50%) and postponed reacquisition after abstinence. Both literature and several of our studies strongly support the potential therapeutic interest of targeting epigenetic mechanisms in excessive alcohol drinking and strengthen theinterest of focusing on specific isoforms of histone deacetylases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics
  • Alcohol Drinking / therapy
  • Alcoholism / genetics*
  • Alcoholism / therapy*
  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology*
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Histone Deacetylases / physiology
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy / methods
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy / trends*


  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors
  • Histone Deacetylases