Adolescent Social Isolation as a Model of Heightened Vulnerability to Comorbid Alcoholism and Anxiety Disorders

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Individuals diagnosed with anxiety-related illnesses are at increased risk of developing alcoholism, exhibit a telescoped progression of this disease and fare worse in recovery, relative to alcoholics that do not suffer from a comorbid anxiety disorder. Similarly, preclinical evidence supports the notion that stress and anxiety represent major risk factors for the development of alcohol use disorder (AUD). Despite the importance of understanding the link between anxiety and alcoholism, much remains unknown about the neurobiological substrates underlying this relationship. One stumbling block has been the lack of animal models that reliably reproduce the spectrum of behaviors associated with increased vulnerability to these diseases. Here, we review the literature that has examined the behavioral and neurobiological outcomes of a simple rodent adolescent social isolation procedure and discuss its validity as a model of vulnerability to comorbid anxiety disorders and alcoholism. Recent studies have provided strong evidence that adolescent social isolation of male rats leads to the expression of a variety of behaviors linked with increased vulnerability to anxiety and/or AUD, including deficits in sensory gating and fear extinction, and increases in anxiety measures and ethanol drinking. Neurobiological studies are beginning to identify mesolimbic adaptations that may contribute to the behavioral phenotype engendered by this model. Some of these changes include increased excitability of ventral tegmental area dopamine neurons and pyramidal cells in the basolateral amygdala and significant alterations in baseline and stimulated catecholamine signaling. A growing body of evidence suggests that adolescent social isolation may represent a reliable rodent model of heightened vulnerability to anxiety disorders and alcoholism in male rats. These studies provide initial support for the face, construct, and predictive validity of this model and highlight its utility in identifying neurobiological adaptations associated with increased risk of developing these disorders.

Although anxiety disorders and alcoholism frequently co-occur, the neural substrates responsible for this comorbidity are unclear. This review highlights recent evidence that, in male rats, adolescent social isolation engenders numerous behavioral risk factors for both disorders, including long-lasting increases in anxiety measures and ethanol self-administration. Initial neurobiological studies have uncovered adaptive changes in mesolimbic circuits that may contribute to these behaviors. These initial studies support the face, construct, and predictive validity of this model and its potential utility in unraveling the neurobiological substrates underlying the relationship between anxiety disorders and alcohol dependence.

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