Differences in Behavioral Responding in Adult and Aged Rats Following Chronic Ethanol Exposure

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Research suggests symptoms of chronic alcoholism, and withdrawal may be more severe in elderly compared with younger adults. However, examination of the effects of long-term ethanol (EtOH) consumption and withdrawal is limited in aged rodents. We thus investigated EtOH withdrawal and potential deficits in cognitive and motor behavior in young adult and aged rats. We also examined the effects of acute allopregnanolone as a potential mechanism contributing to age-related differences in EtOH's cognitive-impairing effects.


Male young adult (postnatal days 70 to 72) and aged (approximately 18 months) Sprague–Dawley rats were treated with liquid EtOH diet in a modified chronic intermittent EtOH (modified-CIE) paradigm. The severity of EtOH withdrawal was determined using a 4-item rating scale, and withdrawal-induced anxiety-like behavior was assessed in the elevated plus maze (EPM) and open field. After a 14-day EtOH-free period, spatial performance was assessed in the Morris water maze (MWM) during sober acquisition and in response to a subsequent EtOH and allopregnanolone challenge.


Modified-CIE adults consumed more EtOH during treatment and exhibited robust EtOH withdrawal using a behavioral rating scale compared to aged rats. In the EPM, adult and aged modified-CIE groups spent increased time in the closed arms, while aged animals also made significantly more closed arm entries, fewer open arm entries, and spent less time in the open arms during withdrawal compared to controls. Modified-CIE decreased MWM performance of adult and aged rats, but did not result in motor impairments in either age group. Finally, acute allopregnanolone increased time to the MWM platform in adults but not aged animals.


The elderly may be vulnerable to EtOH withdrawal as modified-CIE aged rats displayed anxiety-like behavior compared to controls during withdrawal despite achieving lower blood EtOH concentrations during treatment than younger adults. Our data also indicate that modified-CIE and EtOH withdrawal cause persistent cognitive impairments in both age groups. The results from this study provide further evidence indicating the elderly may be sensitive to the effects of alcohol.

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