Background: Epidemiological studies suggest that initiation of alcohol drinking at an early age is associated with an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life. Nevertheless, relatively few studies using animal models have investigated the relationship between age of onset of drinking and ethanol drinking patterns in adulthood. Besides age at drinking onset, other factors such as gender could also affect the pattern of development of alcohol consumption. In rodents, many studies have shown that females drink more than males. However, even if it is assumed that hormonal changes occurring at puberty could explain these differences, only one study performed in rats has investigated the emergence of sex-specific alcohol drinking patterns in adolescence and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The aim of the present study was to compare the acquisition of voluntary alcohol consumption, relapse-like drinking (the Alcohol Deprivation Effect—ADE) and stress-induced alcohol drinking in male and female outbred mice that acquired alcohol consumption during adolescence or adulthood.
Methods: Separate groups of naïve female and male WSC-1 mice aged ± 28 days (adolescents) or ±70 days (adults) were given ad libitum access to water and 6% ethanol solution for 8 weeks (1st to 8th week) before undergoing a 2-week deprivation phase (9th and 10th week). After the deprivation period, 2-bottle preference testing (ethanol vs. water) resumed for 3 weeks (11th to 13th). During the 13th week, all animals were subjected to restraint stress for 2 consecutive days.
Results: Over the entire time course of the experiment, ethanol intake and preference increased in females (both adults and adolescents). Adolescent animals (both females and males) showed a transient increase in alcohol consumption and preference compared to adults. However, by the end of continuous alcohol exposure (when all mice were adults), ethanol intake was not affected by age at drinking onset. A deprivation phase was followed by a rise in ethanol intake (ADE) that was not affected by sex or age. Finally, stress did not alter alcohol self-administration either during or after its occurrence.
Conclusions: Emergence of greater alcohol consumption in adult females does not seem to be limited to a specific developmental period (i.e., puberty). Age of voluntary drinking onset (adolescence vs. adulthood) does not affect eventual alcohol intake in adult WSC-1 mice and does not modify the transient increase in ethanol consumption after alcohol deprivation.