The present study was designed to demonstrate that endogenous calmodulin (CaM) content in synaptic plasma membranes (SPM) is altered by acute and chronic administration of ethanol and is a sequel to the kinetic characterization of ethanol inhibition of [125I]CaM binding to SPM reported in our previous study. In rats, an acute ethanol injection (2 g/kg, i.p.) rapidly reduced CaM content in SPM from cerebral cortex, whereas chronic ethanol treatment [6% (w/v) in a liquid diet for 3 weeks] led to an up-regulation of the CaM content. In both cases, the alteration of CaM content in SPM occurred in the EGTA-dissociable pool of CaM (77% of total membrane CaM); the EGTA-nondissociable pool (23% of total CaM) was not affected. In animals receiving chronic ethanol treatment, CaM content in SPM was not altered significantly by the acute ethanol dose that produced rapid reduction of CaM content in control animals, indicating that resistance to ethanol develops. This resistance to ethanol can be attributed to alterations of membrane properties. In control SPM, ethanol at 50 mM markedly accelerated the temperature-dependent dissociation of endogenous CaM, whereas in SPM from animals chronically treated with ethanol, significant acceleration of CaM dissociation required ethanol concentrations as high as 150-200 mM. These findings on SPM in vitro were consistent with the data on CaM content obtained in vivo. Since CaM mediates a variety of biochemical processes in synaptic membranes, we hypothesize that the effects of ethanol in altering the content of membrane-bound CaM may lead to a cascade of consequences in synaptic membrane function.