Acute ethanol intoxication is associated with behavioral and cognitive symptoms that include problems with memory processing. In some cases, ethanol intoxication can result in a complete inability to process new information, a condition known as a "blackout". Understanding how ethanol alters cognition and memory is important for determining ways to protect the nervous system from the short- and long-term adverse effects of the drug. Although the mechanisms underlying memory processing in the mammalian nervous system are not completely understood, present evidence suggests that use-dependent forms of synaptic plasticity at glutamate synapses in the hippocampus, including long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD), are relevant. For the past several years our laboratory has examined the acute effects of ethanol on synaptic transmission and synaptic plasticity in the CA1 region of rat hippocampal slices. We have found that ethanol acutely inhibits a specific subtype of synaptic N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) that is also inhibited by the NR1/NR2B antagonist, ifenprodil. Block of LTD by ethanol correlates with the block of these synaptic NMDARs. Effects on LTP are more complex and persistent, and involve effects on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-mediated inhibitory transmission. In recent studies, we found that GABA-enhancing neurosteroids contribute to the ability of ethanol to block LTpreliminary Additionally, the ability of ethanol to block LTP depends upon how ethanol is administered, with acute applications of high concentrations blocking LTP and slower step-wise increases in ethanol concentration to high levels resulting in a form of acute tolerance. In this project, we will extend these initial observations and pursue three sets of studies that will examine: 1. How GABAergic neurosteroids contribute to acute effects of ethanol on LTP;2. Factors contributing to the longer-lived (several hour) effects of ethanol on LTP;and 3. Factors contributing to the acute tolerance to ethanol-mediated LTP inhibition following slower increases in ethanol concentration. These studies will be done in rat hippocampal studies and will focus on the effects of ethanol and related modulators on glutamatergic and GABAergic transmission. The long-term goal of these studies is to identify ways to protect the nervous system from the adverse effects of ethanol on synaptic function and cognition.

Public Health Relevance

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused drugs in the United States and is associated with both acute and long-term problems with memory processing. The goal of this project is to determine how alcohol alters communication between nerve cells to impair memory formation with the hope of developing better treatments for alcohol-induced memory problems.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Research Project (R01)
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Neurotoxicology and Alcohol Study Section (NAL)
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Liu, Qi-Ying
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Washington University
Schools of Medicine
Saint Louis
United States
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