Ethanol and membrane lipids

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. Mar-Apr 1985;9(2):164-80. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.1985.tb05543.x.


Although ethanol is known to exert its primary mode of action on the central nervous system, the exact molecular interaction underlying the behavioral and physiological manifestations of alcohol intoxication has not been elucidated. Chronic ethanol administration results in changes in organ functions. These changes are reflective of the adaptive mechanisms in response to the acute effects of ethanol. Biophysical studies have shown that ethanol in vitro disorders the membrane and perturbs the fine structural arrangement of the membrane lipids. In the chronic state, these membranes develop resistance to the disordering effects. Tolerance development is also accompanied by biochemical changes. Although ethanol-induced changes in membrane lipids have been implicated in both biophysical and biochemical studies, measurements of membrane lipids, such as cholesterol content, fatty acid unsaturation, phospholipid distribution, and ganglioside profiles, have not produced conclusive evidence that any of these parameters are directly involved in the action of ethanol. On the other hand, there is increasing evidence indicating that although ethanol in vitro produces a membrane-fluidizing effect, the chronic response to this effect is not to change the membrane bulk lipid composition. Instead, changes in membrane lipids may pertain to small metabolically active pools located in certain subcellular fractions. Most likely, these lipids are involved in important membrane functions. For example, the increase in PS in brain plasma membranes may provide an explanation for the adaptive increase in synaptic membrane ion transport activity, especially (Na,K)-ATPase. There is also evidence that the lipid pool involved in the deacylation-reacylation mechanism (i.e., PI and PC with 20:4 groups) is altered after ethanol administration. An increase in metabolic turnover of these phospholipid pools may have important implications for the membrane functional changes. Obviously, there are other lipid-metabolizing enzyme systems that may exert similar effects but have not yet been investigated in detail. From the results of these studies, it is concluded that the multiple actions of ethanol are associated with changes in enzymic systems important in the functional expression of the membranes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Brain Chemistry / drug effects
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects
  • Cholesterol / physiology
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Erythrocyte Membrane / physiology
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Fatty Acids / physiology
  • Gangliosides / physiology
  • Humans
  • Lipid Bilayers / pharmacology
  • Lipoproteins / blood
  • Membrane Lipids / metabolism
  • Membrane Lipids / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Phospholipids / analysis
  • Phospholipids / physiology
  • Sodium-Potassium-Exchanging ATPase / physiology
  • Synaptic Membranes / drug effects
  • Synaptosomes / drug effects


  • Fatty Acids
  • Gangliosides
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Lipoproteins
  • Membrane Lipids
  • Phospholipids
  • Ethanol
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium-Potassium-Exchanging ATPase