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Article |

Enhanced Sensitivity of Pituitary βEndorphin to Ethanol in Subjects at High Risk of Alcoholism

Christina Gianoulakis, PhD; Brinda Krishnan, MD; Joseph Thavundayil, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996;53(3):250-257. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830030072011.
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Background:  Previous studies have demonstrated that a moderate dose of ethanol induced a significant increase in the plasma β-endorphin content of subjects from families with a history of alcoholism (high risk [HR]), but not of subjects from families without a history of alcoholism (low risk [LR). The objective of this study was to examine the response of the pituitary β-endorphin and adrenal cortisol systems to various concentrations of ethanol in male and female subjects at high and low risk of the future development of alcoholism.

Methods:  All subjects participated in four experimental sessions. In each session the subjects were given a drink containing one of the following doses of ethanol: O, 0.25, 0.50, and 0.75 g of ethanol per kilogram of body weight (for a 60- to 70-kg individual). Blood samples were taken at 0 minutes and at 15, 45, 120, and 180 minutes after the drink for estimation of the blood alcohol, plasma β-endorphin, and plasma cortisol levels.

Results:  The concentration of alcohol in the blood at various intervals after the drink was similar among the subjects, regardless of the risk group. Ethanol increased the plasma level of β-endorphin-related peptides of the HR but not of the LR subjects in a dose-dependent manner. All subjects showed a small decrease in plasma cortisol level with time, but ethanol ingestion did not significantly alter the plasma cortisol levels.

Conclusion:  This study indicates that the pituitary β-endorphin system, but not the adrenal cortisol system, of the HR subjects shows an enhanced sensitivity to ethanol, which may be an important factor in controlling ethanol consumption.

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