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Prog Neurobiol. 2005 Mar;75(4):247-74. Epub 2005 Apr 26.

The role of acetaldehyde in the neurobehavioral effects of ethanol: a comprehensive review of animal studies.

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Laboratoire de Neurosciences Comportementales, et Psychopharmacologie, Université de Liège, Boulevard du Rectorat 5/B32, 4000 Liège, Belgium.


Acetaldehyde has long been suggested to be involved in a number of ethanol's pharmacological and behavioral effects, such as its reinforcing, aversive, sedative, amnesic and stimulant properties. However, the role of acetaldehyde in ethanol's effects has been an extremely controversial topic during the past two decades. Opinions ranged from those virtually denying any role for acetaldehyde in ethanol's effects to those who claimed that alcoholism is in fact "acetaldehydism". Considering the possible key role of acetaldehyde in alcohol addiction, it is critical to clarify the respective functions of acetaldehyde and ethanol molecules in the pharmacological and behavioral effects of alcohol consumption. In the present paper, we review the animal studies reporting evidence that acetaldehyde is involved in the pharmacological and behavioral effects of ethanol. A number of studies demonstrated that acetaldehyde administration induces a range of behavioral effects. Other pharmacological studies indicated that acetaldehyde might be critically involved in several effects of ethanol consumption, including its reinforcing consequences. However, conflicting evidence has also been published. Furthermore, it remains to be shown whether pharmacologically relevant concentrations of acetaldehyde are achieved in the brain after alcohol consumption in order to induce significant effects. Finally, we review current evidence about the central mechanisms of action of acetaldehyde.

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