Alcoholism is a chronic relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive ethanol-seeking and loss of control over alcohol intake. Alcoholism is known to be associated with a persistent dysregulation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) signaling that leads to inappropriate responses to stress, thereby increasing relapse susceptibility in abstinent alcoholics. However, the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for the blunted HPA axis responses to stress in abstinent alcoholics have yet to be uncovered. In rats, acute restraint stress induces a CRH-dependent depression of N-methyl-D- aspartate receptor (NMDAR) function in parvocellular neurosecretory cells (PNCs) of the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN) which allows for the unmasking of associative short-term synaptic potentiation (STP) following a burst of high-frequency stimulation (HFS) of excitatory inputs. This represents a cellular mechanism by which stress induces neuroadaptive responses of the HPA axis. Preliminary results in a rat model of alcohol dependence induced by chronic intermittent ethanol (CIE) exposure show that STP can be induced in PNCs of CIE rats without acute stress. By contrast, STP is impaired in PNCs from acutely stressed CIE rats. We also demonstrated long-lasting potentiation of postsynaptic NMDAR function associated with increased expression of the GluN2B subunit of NMDARs in PNCs of CIE rats. Altogether, preliminary results strongly suggest that CIE exposure modifies both basal and stress-induced synaptic plasticity in PNCs, which could be responsible for the characteristically blunted hormonal response of the HPA axis to stress in alcohol- dependent rats. Thus, the main hypothesis of this proposal is that CIE-induced impairment of STP is mediated by the long-lasting alterations in both NMDAR function and CRH signaling in the PVN. We also hypothesize that restoring this stress-induced plasticity will restore the HPA axis responsiveness to stressors. To test these hypotheses we will use a combination of behavioral, electrophysiological, biochemical and pharmacological techniques to determine: 1) the role of altered NMDAR signaling in stress-induced plasticity at glutamatergic synapses in PNCs after withdrawal from chronic EtOH exposure, and 2) the mechanisms by which chronic EtOH exposure alters CRH signaling in PNCs of the PVN during protracted withdrawal. These studies will help uncover the cellular mechanisms behind the dysregulation of the HPA axis response to stress in alcohol dependence, which will be useful in the discovery of new effective therapies for stress-induced compulsive alcohol seeking.
Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a highly regulated system that mediates the neuroendocrine response to stress, plays an important role in the inability of alcoholics to effectively cope with relapse-inducing stressors. This project will identify the cellular mechanisms underlying the maladaptive responses of the HPA axis to stress in alcohol dependence. These studies will help unravel the intricate mechanisms involved in the dysregulated HPA axis in abstinent alcoholics, which is critical in the discovery of new effective therapies for stress-induced compulsive alcohol seeking.