Alcohol and the Brain: Neuronal Molecular Targets, Synapses, and Circuits

Neuron. 2017 Dec 20;96(6):1223-1238. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.10.032.


Ethanol is one of the most commonly abused drugs. Although environmental and genetic factors contribute to the etiology of alcohol use disorders, it is ethanol's actions in the brain that explain (1) acute ethanol-related behavioral changes, such as stimulant followed by depressant effects, and (2) chronic changes in behavior, including escalated use, tolerance, compulsive seeking, and dependence. Our knowledge of ethanol use and abuse thus relies on understanding its effects on the brain. Scientists have employed both bottom-up and top-down approaches, building from molecular targets to behavioral analyses and vice versa, respectively. This review highlights current progress in the field, focusing on recent and emerging molecular, cellular, and circuit effects of the drug that impact ethanol-related behaviors. The focus of the field is now on pinpointing which molecular effects in specific neurons within a brain region contribute to behavioral changes across the course of acute and chronic ethanol exposure.

Keywords: addiction; alcoholism; dependence; ethanol; intoxication; neuroadaptation; synaptic plasticity; synaptic transmission; tolerance; withdrawal.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / pathology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / cytology*
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / drug effects*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects*
  • Neurons / drug effects*
  • Neurons / metabolism


  • Ethanol