Intermittent Ethanol Exposure in Adolescent Rats: Dose-Dependent Impairments in Trace Conditioning


  • Supported by NIAAA Grant AA12466 (PSH) and NARSAD Young Investigator Award (JAB).

Reprint requests: Pamela S. Hunt, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, College of William & Mary, PO Box 8795, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795; Phone: 757-221-3894; FAX: 757-221-3896; E-mail:


Background: Recent studies have revealed that the adolescent brain may be especially vulnerable to ethanol-induced toxicity. Corticolimbic regions are more severely damaged following ethanol exposure during adolescence than during adulthood. The consequences of adolescent ethanol exposure on cognition however, have only recently begun to be explored.

Methods: Male and female rats were administered 0, 1.5, 2.5 or 4.5 g/kg ethanol (20% v/v) by acute intragastric gavage during adolescence (postnatal days [PD] 28, 30, 32 and 34). On PD 40, half of the subjects in each dose group were given 5 pairings of a 10-sec flashing light (CS; conditioned stimulus) immediately followed by mild footshock (US; unconditioned stimulus), a procedure known as delay conditioning. The other half were also given 5 CS-US pairings, but the US was presented 10 sec after CS offset, a procedure known as trace conditioning. All subjects were tested for CS-elicited freezing 24 h later.

Results: There was no effect of adolescent ethanol exposure on delay conditioned responding, with all subjects demonstrating comparable levels of CS-elicited freezing. In contrast, the amount of freezing in the trace conditioned subjects was negatively correlated with prior ethanol dose. Specifically, exposure to 2.5 or 4.5 g/kg during adolescence resulted in a deficit in trace conditioned responding.

Conclusions: These data indicate that intermittent exposure to ethanol during adolescence results in impairment in hippocampal-dependent trace conditioning that persists beyond the period of ethanol exposure. Delay conditioning was unaffected by prior ethanol treatment, indicating that there was no difficulty in detecting the CS or US, or in the ability to engage in freezing behavior. These results suggest that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of repeated exposure to ethanol that can have consequences for nonspatial, hippocampal-dependent cognitive abilities.