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Alcoholism: A Systems Approach From Molecular Physiology To Addictive Behavior

Rainer Spanagel

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Alcohol consumption is an integral part of daily life in many societies. The benefits associated with the production, sale, and use of alcoholic beverages come at an enormous cost to these societies. The World Health Organization ranks alcohol as one of the primary causes of the global burden of disease in industrialized countries. Alcohol-related diseases, especially alcoholism, are the result of cumulative responses to alcohol exposure, the genetic make-up of an individual, and the environmental perturbations over time. This complex gene × environment interaction, which has to be seen in a life-span perspective, leads to a large heterogeneity among alcohol-dependent patients, in terms of both the symptom dimensions and the severity of this disorder. Therefore, a reductionistic approach is not very practical if a better understanding of the pathological processes leading to an addictive behavior is to be achieved. Instead, a systems-oriented perspective in which the interactions and dynamics of all endogenous and environmental factors involved are centrally integrated, will lead to further progress in alcohol research. This review adheres to a systems biology perspective such that the interaction of alcohol with primary and secondary targets within the brain is described in relation to the behavioral consequences. As a result of the interaction of alcohol with these targets, alterations in gene expression and synaptic plasticity take place that lead to long-lasting alteration in neuronal network activity. As a subsequent consequence, alcohol-seeking responses ensue that can finally lead via complex environmental interactions to an addictive behavior.