The role of mesolimbic dopamine in the development and maintenance of ethanol reinforcement

Rueben A. Gonzales, Martin O. Job, William M. Doyon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

251 Scopus citations


The neurobiological processes by which ethanol seeking and consumption are established and maintained are thought to involve areas of the brain that mediate motivated behavior, such as the mesolimbic dopamine system. The mesolimbic dopamine system is comprised of cells that originate in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and project to several forebrain regions, including a prominent terminal area, the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). The NAcc has been subdivided into core and shell subregions. Both areas receive converging excitatory input from the cortex and amygdala and dopamine input from the VTA, with the accumbal medium spiny neuron situated to integrate the signals. Although forced ethanol administration enhances dopamine activity in the NAcc, conclusions regarding the role of mesolimbic dopamine in ethanol reinforcement cannot be made from these experiments. Behavioral experiments consistently show that pharmacological manipulations of the dopamine transmission in the NAcc alter responding for ethanol, although ethanol reinforcement is maintained after lesions of the accumbal dopamine system. Additionally, extracellular dopamine increases in the NAcc during operant self-administration of ethanol, which is consistent with a role of dopamine in ethanol reinforcement. Behavioral studies that distinguish appetitive responding from ethanol consumption show that dopamine is important in ethanol-seeking behavior, whereas neurochemical studies suggest that accumbal dopamine is also important during ethanol consumption before pharmacological effects occur. Cellular studies suggest that ethanol alters synaptic plasticity in the mesolimbic system, possibly through dopaminergic mechanisms, and this may underlie the development of ethanol reinforcement. Thus, anatomical, pharmacological, neurochemical, cellular, and behavioral studies are more clearly defining the role of mesolimbic dopamine in ethanol reinforcement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-146
Number of pages26
JournalPharmacology and Therapeutics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2004
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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