Throughout the world, ethanol is both an important commercial commodity and a source of major medical and social problems. Ethanol readily passes through biological membranes and distributes throughout the body. It is oxidized, first to acetaldehyde and then to acetate, and finally by the citric acid cycle in virtually all tissues. The oxidation of ethanol is irreversible and unregulated, making the rate dependent only on local concentration and enzyme activity. This unregulated input of reducing equivalents increases reduction of both cytoplasmic and intramitochondrial NAD and, through the latter, cellular energy state {[ATP]/([ADP][Pi])}. In brain, this increase in energy state stimulates dopaminergic neural activity signalling reward and a sense of well being, while suppressing glutamatergic neural activity signalling anxiety and unease. These positive responses to ethanol ingestion are important to social alcohol consumption. Importantly, decreased free [AMP] decreases AMP-dependent protein kinase (AMPK) activity, an important regulator of cellular energy metabolism. Oxidation of substrates used for energy metabolism in the absence of ethanol is down regulated to accommodate the input from ethanol. In liver, chronic ethanol metabolism results in fatty liver and general metabolic dysfunction. In brain, transport of other oxidizable metabolites through the blood-brain barrier and the enzymes for their oxidation are both down regulated. For exposures of short duration, ethanol induced regulatory changes are rapid and reversible, recovering completely when the concentrations of ethanol and acetate fall again. Longer periods of ethanol exposure and associated chronic suppression of AMPK activity activates regulatory mechanisms, including gene expression, that operate over longer time scales, both in onset and reversal. If chronic alcohol consumption is abruptly ended, metabolism is no longer able to respond rapidly enough to compensate. Glutamatergic neural activity adapts to chronic dysregulation of glutamate metabolism and suppression of glutamatergic neural activity by increasing excitatory and decreasing inhibitory amino acid receptors. A point is reached (ethanol dependence) where withdrawal of ethanol results in significant metabolic energy depletion in neurons and other brain cells as well as hyperexcitation of the glutamatergic system. The extent and regional specificity of energy depletion in the brain, combined with hyperactivity of the glutamatergic neuronal system, largely determines the severity of withdrawal symptoms.
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