Alcohol Gains Access to Appetitive Learning Through Adolescent Heavy Drinking

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Adolescent heavy alcohol drinking increases the risk for alcohol use disorders in adulthood, yet mechanisms conferring increased risk are not well understood. We propose that adolescent alcohol drinking shapes alcohol’s aversive or appetitive properties in adulthood. Alcohol normally drives aversive learning and alcohol-predictive cues are avoided. We hypothesize that through adolescent heavy drinking alcohol gains access to appetitive learning. A primary consequence is that alcohol-predictive cues become valued and sought out. To test this hypothesis, we gave genetically heterogeneous, male Long Evans rats voluntary, chronic intermittent access to water or alcohol throughout adolescence and then identified moderate and heavy alcohol drinkers. After a short abstinence period, we assessed the aversive or appetitive properties of alcohol using flavor learning procedures. We compared alcohol to the known appetitive properties of sugar. Flavor learning in adult rats who were alcohol-naïve or adolescent moderate alcohol drinkers revealed alcohol to be aversive and sugar to be appetitive. The same flavor learning procedures revealed both alcohol and sugar to be appetitive in adult rats who were adolescent heavy drinkers. The results demonstrate that alcohol gains access to neurobehavioral circuits for appetitive learning through adolescent heavy alcohol drinking.

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