CRF modulation of central monoaminergic function: Implications for sex differences in alcohol drinking and anxiety

Alcohol. 2018 Nov;72:33-47. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2018.01.007. Epub 2018 Feb 2.


Decades of research have described the importance of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) signaling in alcohol addiction, as well as in commonly co-expressed neuropsychiatric diseases, including anxiety and mood disorders. However, CRF signaling can also acutely regulate binge alcohol consumption, anxiety, and affect in non-dependent animals, possibly via modulation of central monoaminergic signaling. We hypothesize that basal CRF tone is particularly high in animals and humans with an inherent propensity for high anxiety and alcohol consumption, and thus these individuals are at increased risk for the development of alcohol use disorder and comorbid neuropsychiatric diseases. The current review focuses on extrahypothalamic CRF circuits, particularly those stemming from the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), found to play a role in basal phenotypes, and examines whether the intrinsic hyperactivity of these circuits is sufficient to escalate the expression of these behaviors and steepen the trajectory of development of disease states. We focus our efforts on describing CRF modulation of biogenic amine neuron populations that have widespread projections to the forebrain to modulate behaviors, including alcohol and drug intake, stress reactivity, and anxiety. Further, we review the known sex differences and estradiol modulation of these neuron populations and CRF signaling at their synapses to address the question of whether females are more susceptible to the development of comorbid addiction and stress-related neuropsychiatric diseases because of hyperactive extrahypothalamic CRF circuits compared to males.

Keywords: Alcohol; Anxiety; Bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST); Corticotropin releasing factor (CRF); Dopamine (DA); Estrogen; Norepinephrine (NE); Serotonin (5-HT).

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology
  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / metabolism*
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Anxiety / metabolism*
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / metabolism*
  • Binge Drinking / epidemiology
  • Binge Drinking / metabolism
  • Biogenic Monoamines / metabolism
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Estradiol / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Norepinephrine / metabolism
  • Septal Nuclei / metabolism*
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Sex Factors


  • Biogenic Monoamines
  • Serotonin
  • Estradiol
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine