Background: The current therapies for alcohol abuse disorders are not effective in all patients, and continued development of pharmacotherapies is needed. One approach that has generated recent interest is the antagonism of ghrelin receptors. Ghrelin is a gut-derived peptide important in energy homeostasis and regulation of hunger. Recent studies have implicated ghrelin in alcoholism, showing altered plasma ghrelin levels in alcoholic patients as well as reduced intakes of alcohol in ghrelin receptor knockout mice and in mice treated with ghrelin receptor antagonists. The aim of this study was to determine the neuroanatomical locus/loci of the effect of ghrelin receptor antagonism on alcohol consumption using the ghrelin receptor antagonist, D-Lys3-GHRP-6.
Methods: In Experiment 1, male C57BL/6J mice were injected with saline 3 hours into the dark cycle and allowed access to 15% (v/v) ethanol or water for 2 hours in a 2-bottle choice experiment. On test day, the mice were injected with either saline or 400 nmol of the ghrelin receptor antagonist, D-Lys3-GHRP-6, and allowed to drink 15% ethanol or water for 4 hours. The preference for alcohol and alcohol intake were determined. In Experiment 2, the same procedure was followed as in Experiment 1 but mice were only allowed access to a single bottle of 20% ethanol (v/v), and alcohol intake was determined. Blood ethanol levels were analyzed, and immunohistochemistry for c-Fos was carried out to investigate changes in neural activity. To further elucidate the mechanism by which D-Lys3-GHRP-6 affects alcohol intake, in Experiment 3, the effect of D-Lys3-GHRP-6 on the neural activation induced by intraperitoneal ethanol was investigated. For the c-Fos studies, brain regions containing ghrelin receptors were analyzed, i.e. the perioculomotor urocortin population of neurons (pIIIu), the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and the arcuate nucleus (Arc). In Experiment 4, to test if blood ethanol concentrations were affected by D-Lys3-GHRP-6, blood samples were taken at 2 time-points after D-Lys3-GHRP-6 pretreatment and systemic ethanol administration.
Results: In Experiment 1, D-Lys3-GHRP-6 reduced preference to alcohol and in a follow-up experiment (Experiment 2) also dramatically reduced alcohol intake when compared to saline-treated mice. The resulting blood ethanol concentrations were lower in mice treated with the ghrelin receptor antagonist. Immunohistochemistry for c-Fos showed fewer immunopositive cells in the pIIIu of the antagonist-treated mice but no difference was seen in the VTA or Arc. In Experiment 3, D-Lys3-GHRP-6 reduced the induction of c-Fos by intraperitoneal ethanol in the pIIIu but had no effect in the VTA. In the Arc, there was a significant increase in the number of c-Fos immunopositive cells after D-Lys3-GHRP-6 administration, but the antagonist had no effect on ethanol-induced expression of c-Fos. D-Lys3-GHRP-6-pretreatment also did not affect the blood ethanol concentrations observed after a systemic injection of ethanol when compared to saline-pretreated mice (Experiment 4).
Conclusions: These findings indicate that the action of ghrelin on the regulation of alcohol consumption may occur via the pIIIu.