Biochemical actions of chronic ethanol exposure in the mesolimbic dopamine system

Jordi Ortiz, Lawrence W. Fitzgerald, Maura Charlton, Sarah Lane, Louis Trevisan, Xavier Guitart, William Shoemaker, Ronald S. Duman, Eric J. Nestler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

189 Scopus citations


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 caudate‐putamen, 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 GABA 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 NMDARl subunit, an obligatory component of NMDA glutamate receptors, and of the Glu Rl subunit, a component of many AMPA glutamate receptors; but at the same time, long‐term ethanol exposure decreased immunoreactivity levels of the α1 subunit of the GABAA receptor complex. These changes are consistent with an increased state of activation of VTA neurons inferred from the observed increase intyrosine 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. © 1995 Wiley‐Liss, Inc.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)289-298
Number of pages10
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1995
Externally publishedYes


  • Cocaine
  • Cyclic AMP‐dependent protein kinase
  • GABA receptors
  • Glial fibrillary acidic protein
  • Glutamate receptors
  • Morphine
  • Neurofilaments
  • Tyrosine hydroxylase


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