Behavioral sensitization: A new perspective on alcoholism

very well established in a person, it may actually change the responses in their gene expression. That is why behavioral sensitization is difficult to reverse."

The method this study used to study alcohol's effects was to measure locomotor activity; researchers measured the distance that laboratory animals traveled following alcohol ingestion. Given independently, MK-801 stimulated locomotor activity, as did alcohol. When given together, however, the two substances diminished locomotor activity. This is how researchers determined that MK-801 might block the development of behavioral sensitization to alcohol as measured by locomotor activity.

"The results are not entirely anomalous," said Hodge. "But it is a curious finding that a drug that increases locomotor behavior, and acts like alcohol, would block the locomotor-activating effect of alcohol." Hodge said that a similar case of this phenomenon is the use of Ritalin for treating hyperactivity in children. "Ritalin is a stimulant," he said. "Yet it is a general finding that stimulants will decrease behavior occurring at high rates."

Both Camarini and Hodge admit that it's difficult to distinguish when, in the continuum of addiction development, sensitization and tolerance may develop and/or co-exist. Hodge speculated that sensitization might occur early on in an individual's exposure to a drug like alcohol, but noted that several ethical and practical considerations would impede testing that theory. A more procurable group would be alcoholics at risk of relapse.

"Sensitization may occur in relation to recent cessation of drinking," said Hodge. "An alcoholic who has been alcohol-free for some time may start drinking again. MK-801 could be useful, in this case, to diminish the effects of drinking."

Camarini and Hodge affirm the need for further research in this area, both to explore how something that acts

Contact: Rosana Camarini, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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