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Alcohol. 2009 Nov;43(7):547-54. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2009.09.029.

Contribution of early environmental stress to alcoholism vulnerability.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9660, USA.


The most problematic aspects of alcohol abuse disorder are excessive alcohol consumption and the inability to refrain from alcohol consumption during attempted abstinence. The root causes that predispose certain individuals to these problems are poorly understood but are believed to be produced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Early environmental trauma alters neurodevelopmental trajectories that can predispose an individual to a number of neuropsychiatric disorders, including substance abuse. Prenatal stress (PNS) is a well-established protocol that produces perturbations in nervous system development, resulting in behavioral alterations that include hyperresponsiveness to stress, novelty, and psychomotor stimulant drugs (e.g., cocaine, amphetamine). Moreover, PNS animals exhibit enduring alterations in basal and cocaine-induced changes in dopamine and glutamate transmission within limbic structures, which exhibit pathology in drug addiction and alcoholism, suggesting that these alterations may contribute to an increased propensity to self-administer large amounts of drugs of abuse or to relapse after periods of drug withdrawal. Given that cocaine and alcohol have actions on common limbic neural substrates (albeit by different mechanisms), we hypothesized that PNS would elevate the motivation for, and consumption of, alcohol. Accordingly, we have found that male C57BL/6J mice subject to PNS exhibit higher operant responding and consume more alcohol during alcohol reinforcement as adults. Alterations in glutamate and dopamine neurotransmission within the forebrain structures appear to contribute to the PNS-induced predisposition to high alcohol intake and are induced by excessive alcohol intake. Accordingly, we are exploring the interactions between neurochemical changes produced by PNS and changes induced by consumption of alcohol in adulthood to model the biological bases of high vulnerability to alcohol abuse.

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