Mechanisms of Alcohol Addiction: Bridging Human and Animal Studies

Alcohol Alcohol. 2020 Oct 20;55(6):603-607. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agaa068.


Aim: The purpose of this brief narrative review is to address the complexities and benefits of extending animal alcohol addiction research to the human domain, emphasizing Allostasis and Incentive Sensitization, two models that inform many pre-clinical and clinical studies.

Methods: The work reviewed includes a range of approaches, including: a) animal and human studies that target the biology of craving and compulsive consumption; b) human investigations that utilize alcohol self-administration and alcohol challenge paradigms, in some cases across 10 years; c) questionnaires that document changes in the positive and negative reinforcing effects of alcohol with increasing severity of addiction; and d) genomic structural equation modeling based on data from animal and human studies.

Results: Several general themes emerge from specific study findings. First, positive reinforcement is characteristic of early stage addiction and sometimes diminishes with increasing severity, consistent with both Allostasis and Incentive Sensitization. Second, evidence is less consistent for the predominance of negative reinforcement in later stages of addiction, a key tenant of Allostasis. Finally, there are important individual differences in motivation to drink at a given point in time as well as person-specific change patterns across time.

Conclusions: Key constructs of addiction, like stage and reinforcement, are by necessity operationalized differently in animal and human studies. Similarly, testing the validity of addiction models requires different strategies by the two research domains. Although such differences are challenging, they are not insurmountable, and there is much to be gained in understanding and treating addiction by combining pre-clinical and clinical approaches.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / genetics
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / diagnosis
  • Behavior, Addictive / genetics
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology*
  • Craving / drug effects*
  • Craving / physiology
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Motivation / drug effects*
  • Motivation / genetics
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Self Administration / methods
  • Self Administration / psychology


  • Ethanol