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Prog Neurobiol. 1998 Aug;55(5):509-35.

Ethanol and neurotransmitter interactions--from molecular to integrative effects.

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Department of Pharmacology, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield 62794-1222, USA.


There is extensive evidence that ethanol interacts with a variety of neurotransmitters. Considerable research indicates that the major actions of ethanol involve enhancement of the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at GABAA receptors and blockade of the NMDA subtype of excitatory amino acid (EAA) receptor. Ethanol increases GABAA receptor-mediated inhibition, but this does not occur in all brain regions, all cell types in the same region, nor at all GABAA receptor sites on the same neuron, nor across species in the same brain region. The molecular basis for the selectivity of the action of ethanol on GaBAA receptors has been proposed to involve a combination of benzodiazepine subtype, beta 2 subunit, and a splice variant of the gamma 2 subunit, but substantial controversy on this issue currently remains. Chronic ethanol administration results in tolerance, dependence, and an ethanol withdrawal (ETX) syndrome, which are mediated, in part, by desensitization and/or down-regulation of GABAA receptors. This decrease in ethanol action may involve changes in subunit expression in selected brain areas, but these data are complex and somewhat contradictory at present. The sensitivity of NMDA receptors to ethanol block is proposed to involve the NMDAR2B subunit in certain brain regions, but this subunit does not appear to be the sole determinant of this interaction. Tolerance to ethanol results in enhanced EAA neurotransmission and NMDA receptor upregulation, which appears to involve selective increases in NMDAR2B subunit levels and other molecular changes in specific brain loci. During ETX a variety of symptoms are seen, including susceptibility to seizures. In rodents these seizures are readily triggered by sound (audiogenic seizures). The neuronal network required for these seizures is contained primarily in certain brain stem structures. Specific nuclei appear to play a hierarchical role in generating each stereotypical behavioral phases of the convulsion. Thus, the inferior colliculus acts to initiate these seizures, and a decrease in effectiveness of GABA-mediated inhibition in these neurons is a major initiation mechanism. The deep layers of superior colliculus are implicated in generation of the wild running behavior. The pontine reticular formation, substantia nigra and periaqueductal gray are implicated in generation of the tonic-clonic seizure behavior. The mechanisms involved in the recruitment of neurons within each network nucleus into the seizure circuit have been proposed to require activation of a critical mass of neurons. Achievement of critical mass may involve excess EAA-mediated synaptic neurotransmission due, in part, to upregulation as well as other phenomena, including volume (non-synaptic diffusion) neurotransmission. Effects of ETX on receptors observed in vitro may undergo amplification in vivo to allow the excess EAA action to be magnified sufficiently to produce synchronization of neuronal firing, allowing participation of the nucleus in seizure generation. GABA-mediated inhibition, which normally acts to limit excitation, is diminished in effectiveness during ETX, and further intensifies this excitation.

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