Moderate social consumption of alcohol is common; however, only a small percentage of individuals transit from social to excessive, uncontrolled alcohol drinking. This suggests the existence of protective mechanisms that prevent the development of alcohol addiction. Here, we tested the hypothesis that the glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) in the mesolimbic system [e.g. the nucleus accumbens (Acb) and ventral tegmental area (VTA)] is part of such a mechanism. We found that GDNF knockdown, by infecting rat Acb neurons with a small hairpin RNA (shRNA) targeting the GDNF gene, produced a rapid escalation to excessive alcohol consumption and enhanced relapse to alcohol drinking. Conversely, viral-mediated overexpression of the growth factor in the mesolimbic system blocked the escalation from moderate to excessive alcohol drinking. To access the mechanism underlying GDNF's actions, we measured the firing rate of dopaminergic (DAergic) neurons in the VTA after a history of excessive alcohol intake with or without elevating GDNF levels. We found that the spontaneous firing rate of DAergic neurons in the VTA was reduced during alcohol withdrawal and that GDNF reversed this alcohol-induced DA deficiency. Together, our results suggest that endogenous GDNF in the mesolimbic system controls the transition from moderate to excessive alcohol drinking and relapse via reversal of alcohol-dependent neuro-adaptations in DAergic VTA neurons.