Increased Startle Potentiation to Unpredictable Stressors in Alcohol Dependence: Possible Stress Neuroadaptation in Humans

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Stress plays a key role in addiction etiology and relapse. Rodent models posit that following repeated periods of alcohol and other drug intoxication, compensatory allostatic changes occur in the central nervous system (CNS) circuits involved in behavioral and emotional response to stressors. We examine a predicted manifestation of this neuroadaptation in recently abstinent alcohol-dependent humans. Participants completed a translational laboratory task that uses startle potentiation to unpredictable (vs. predictable) stressors implicated in the putative CNS mechanisms that mediate this neuroadaptation. Alcohol-dependent participants displayed significantly greater startle potentiation to unpredictable than predictable stressors relative to nonalcoholic controls. The size of this effect covaried with alcohol-related problems and degree of withdrawal syndrome. This supports the rodent model thesis of a sensitized stress response in abstinent alcoholics. However, this effect could also represent premorbid risk or mark more severe and/or comorbid psychopathology. Regardless, pharmacotherapy and psychological interventions may target unpredictable stressor response to reduce stress-induced relapse.

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