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Estrogen Receptor α Regulates Ethanol Excitation of Ventral Tegmental Area Neurons and Binge Drinking in Female Mice

By Bertha J. Vandegrift, Elisa R. Hilderbrand, Rosalba Satta, Rex Tai, Donghong He, Chang You, Cassandre Coles, Hu Chen, Mark S. Brodie, Amy W. Lasek

Posted 10 Oct 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/800052 (published DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2364-19.2020)

Elevations in estrogen (17β-estradiol, E2) are associated with increased alcohol drinking by women and experimentally in rodents. E2 alters the activity of the dopamine system, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and its projection targets, which plays an important role in binge drinking. A previous study demonstrated that during high E2 states, VTA dopamine neurons in female mice are more sensitive to ethanol excitation. However, the mechanisms responsible for the ability of E2 to enhance ethanol sensitivity of VTA dopamine neurons have not been investigated. In this study, we used selective agonists and antagonists to examine the role of estrogen receptor subtypes (ERα and ERβ) in regulating the ethanol sensitivity of VTA dopamine neurons and found that ERα promotes the enhanced ethanol response of VTA dopamine neurons. We also demonstrated that the E2-induced increase in ethanol excitation requires the activity of the metabotropic glutamate receptor, mGluR1, which is known to couple with ERα at the plasma membrane. To investigate the behavioral relevance of these findings, we administered lentivirus expressing short hairpin RNAs targeting either ERα or ERβ into the VTA and found that knockdown of each receptor in the VTA reduced binge-like ethanol drinking in female, but not male, mice. Reducing ERα in the VTA had a more dramatic effect on binge-like drinking than reducing ERβ, consistent with the ability of ERα to alter ethanol sensitivity of dopamine neurons. These results provide important insight into sex-specific mechanisms that drive excessive alcohol drinking.

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