Alcohol dependence is associated with anxiety during withdrawal. The endocannabinoid (ECB) system participates in the neuroendocrine and behavioral response to stress and changes in corticolimbic ECB signaling may contribute to alcohol withdrawal-induced anxiety. Moreover, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal differ between sexes and sexual dimorphism in withdrawal-induced ECB recruitment may be a contributing factor. Herein, we exposed intact male and female rats and ovariectomized (OVX) female rats with or without estradiol (E2) replacement to 6 weeks of chronic intermittent alcohol vapor and measured anxiety-like behavior, ECB content, and ECB-related mRNA in the basolateral amygdala (BLA) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Acute alcohol withdrawal increased anxiety-like behavior, produced widespread disturbances in ECB-related mRNA, and reduced anandamide (AEA) content in the BLA and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) content in the vmPFC of male, but not female rats. Similar to males, alcohol-exposed OVX females showed reductions in Napepld mRNA in the BLA, decreased AEA content in the BLA and vmPFC, and reductions in all ECB-related genes measured in the vmPFC. Importantly, E2 replacement prevented withdrawal-induced alterations in ECB content (but not mRNA) in OVX females, and although alcohol-exposed OVX females failed to exhibit more anxiety compared to their respective control, chronic alcohol exposure abolished the anxiolytic properties of E2 in OVX rats. These data indicate that ovarian sex hormones (but not E2 alone) protect against withdrawal-induced alterations in corticolimbic ECB signaling but do not impart resilience to withdrawal-induced anxiety. Thus, the mechanisms implicated in the manifestation of alcohol withdrawal-induced anxiety are most likely sex-specific.
This article is part of the Special Issue entitled “A New Dawn in Cannabinoid Neurobiology”.