Biochemical actions of chronic ethanol exposure in the mesolimbic dopamine system

Synapse. 1995 Dec;21(4):289-98. doi: 10.1002/syn.890210403.


In previous studies, we have demonstrated that chronic administration of morphine or cocaine produces some common biochemical adaptations in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NAc), components of the mesolimbic dopamine system implicated in the reinforcing actions of these and other drugs of abuse. Since this neural pathway is also implicated in the reinforcing actions of ethanol, it was of interest to determine whether chronic ethanol exposure results in similar biochemical adaptations. Indeed, as seen for chronic morphine and cocaine treatments, we show here that chronic ethanol treatment increased levels of tyrosine hydroxylase and glial fibrillary acidic protein immunoreactivity, and decreases levels of neurofilament protein immunoreactivity, in the VTA. Also like morphine and cocaine, ethanol increases levels of cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase activity in the NAc. These actions of ethanol required long-term exposure to the drug, and were in most cases not seen in the substantia nigra or caudateputamen, components of the nigrostriatal dopamine system studied for comparison. Altered levels of tyrosine hydroxylase in catecholaminergic cells frequently reflect altered states of activation of the cells. Moreover, increasing evidence indicates that ethanol produces many of its acute effects on the brain by regulating NMDA glutamate and GABAA receptors. We therefore examined the influence of chronic ethanol treatment on levels of expression of specific glutamate and GABA receptor subunits in the VTA. It was found that long-term, but not short-term, ethanol exposure increased levels of immunoreactivity of the NMDAR1 subunit, an obligatory component of NMDA glutamate receptors, and of the GluR1 subunit, a component of many AMPA glutamate receptors; but at the same time, long-term ethanol exposure decreased immunoreactivity levels of the alpha 1 subunit of the GABAA receptor complex. These changes are consistent with an increased state of activation of VTA neurons inferred from the observed increase in tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) expression. These results demonstrate that chronic ethanol exposure results in several biochemical adaptations in the mesolimbic dopamine system, which may underlie prominent changes in the structural and functional properties of this neural pathway related to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adenylyl Cyclases / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cyclic AMP-Dependent Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein / metabolism
  • Limbic System / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Neurofilament Proteins / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, GABA / metabolism
  • Receptors, Glutamate / metabolism
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / metabolism
  • Time Factors
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism


  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein
  • Neurofilament Proteins
  • Receptors, GABA
  • Receptors, Glutamate
  • Ethanol
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Cyclic AMP-Dependent Protein Kinases
  • Adenylyl Cyclases
  • Dopamine