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Both the selectively bred alcohol-preferring (P) and high alcohol-drinking (HAD) rats exhibit alcohol preference, and develop tolerance to alcohol more quickly than their counterparts, the alcohol-nonpreferring (NP) and low alcohol-drinking (LAD) rats, respectively. It has been shown that the P rats retain developed tolerance longer than do NP rats, and alcohol drinking increases concurrently with the development of tolerance. Although alcohol preference and tolerance are fundamental elements of alcoholism, the exact mechanisms underlying these two phenotypes in P and HAD rats are not well understood. Recent studies have suggested that arginine vasopressin (AVP) may be involved in modulation of alcohol tolerance. Accordingly, this study was designed to examine whether the AVP mRNA level in the hypothalamus differs in rats that have been selectively bred for alcohol preference and nonpreference. A S-AVP antisense oligodeoxynucleotide probe was used for in situ hybridization to localize AVP mRNA in the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus (PVN) and supraoptic nucleus (SON), two major sites for AVP synthesis in the hypothalamus. Quantitative autoradiography demonstrated that P rats had higher levels of AVP mRNA in the PVN than NP rats. Similarly, higher levels of AVP mRNA were also found in the PVN of HAD rats, compared with LAD rats. The AVP mRNA levels in the SON were similar in the alcohol-preferring and alcohol-nonpreferring rat lines. Basal plasma AVP levels were higher in NP rats than in P rats as determined by radioimmunoassay, whereas plasma AVP levels were not significantly different between HAD and LAD rats. The results suggest that increased AVP gene expression in the PVN may contribute to alcohol preference and the development of alcohol tolerance.