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Background:

Onset of alcohol use during adolescence has potentially long-lasting consequences, e.g., prospective alcohol dependence. To obtain new insight into the effects of early chronic ethanol consumption, we compared the drinking behavior of two adult male Wistar rat groups: one that initiated alcohol consumption during adolescence (adolescent group) and the other that initiated their drinking during adulthood (adult group) in a model of long-term alcohol self-administration. We investigated the magnitude of the effects of deprivation and stress on alcohol intake and the influence of these events on the alcohol drinking behavior across time.

Methods:

Heterogeneous Wistar rats aged 31 days (adolescents) and 71 days (adults) were given ad libitum access to water, as well as 5% and 20% ethanol solutions during an observation period of 30 wk. A deprivation phase of 14 days was instituted after eight wk of access to alcohol. After 16 and 26 wk of alcohol access, all animals were subjected for three consecutive days to forced swimming and electric foot shocks, respectively.

Results:

At the onset of drinking, adolescent animals consumed less alcohol and showed lower preference than adults. The deprivation phase was followed by increased intake of highly concentrated ethanol solution without appreciable differences between age groups. Repeated swim stress produced a slight increase in ethanol consumption in both animal groups; however, alcohol intake was not significantly different between groups, whereas the foot shock stress-induced increase in alcohol intake was significantly higher in the animal group that initiated alcohol consumption during adolescence. After swim stress, the drinking behavior of the adolescent group resembled that of the adult group. In particular, the adolescent group increased their preference for 20% ethanol solution for the remainder of the experiment.

Conclusions:

Age of voluntary alcohol drinking onset does not appear to be a strong predictor for prospective alcohol intake and relapse-like drinking behavior under the present experimental conditions. However, male Wistar rats that initiated alcohol consumption during adolescence seem to be more susceptible to acute stressor-specific effects in terms of alcohol consumption.