Background: Relapse after abstinence can be modelled in rats using an alcohol deprivation effect (ADE) of enhanced ethanol consumption after a period of enforced abstinence from ethanol; however, not all rat strains display such an effect. We wanted to examine the effect of naltrexone on ethanol consumption by ethanol-preferring Fawn-Hooded (FH) rats using such a model.
Method: FH rats were given continual free-choice access to a 5% ethanol solution or water (4 weeks) followed by 2 weeks of water alone. At the end of this abstinence period, osmotic minipumps were implanted subcutaneously to deliver saline (n= 4) or naltrexone (n= 4; 8.4 mgkgiday for 4 weeks). After recovery from surgery, the rats were again given access to 5% ethanol under the same free-choice conditions (4 weeks). A third group of age-matched controls drank only water during the behavioral trial. At the end of the behavioral trial, the rats were decapitated and an autoradiographic examination was made of μ-opioid receptor density through the forebrain using the ligand [125I]FK-33824.
Result: First, a period of enforced abstinence from ethanol consumption caused a significant (p < 0.05) and prolonged increase in ethanol preference (+18%) and decrease in water consumption (-53%), although the volume of ethanol consumed (ml/day) did not vary, indicating an atypical ADE in this rat strain. Second, naltrexone significantly (p < 0.05) decreased ethanol consumption by the FH rats in terms of absolute amount of ethanol consumed and preference for ethanol solution, but this effect of naltrexone diminished over time, concurrent with a robust and significant elevation in μ-opioid receptor density in all brain regions examined (p < 0.05). Finally, ethanol consumption alone also upregulated μ-opioid receptor density relative to nondrinking controls in a number of brain regions, which included the nucleus accumbens (+29%) and caudate-putamen (+ 15%,p < 0.05), but decreased μ-opioid receptor density in other regions including the substantia nigra pars reticulata, which was suggestive of an indirect effect on μ-opioid receptors.
Conclusions: The data suggest that continual long-term naltrexone treatment may not be effective in the treatment of alcoholism, possibly because of the induced increase in μ-opioid receptor density.