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Voluntary adolescent drinking enhances excitation by low levels of alcohol in a subset of dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area.

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Enhanced dopamine (DA) neurotransmission from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the ventral striatum is thought to drive drug self-administration and mediate positive reinforcement. We examined neuronal firing rates in slices of mouse midbrain following adolescent binge-like alcohol drinking and find that prior alcohol experience greatly enhanced the sensitivity to excitation by ethanol itself (10-50 mM) in a subset of ventral midbrain DA neurons located in the medial VTA. This enhanced response after drinking was not associated with alterations of firing rate or other measures of intrinsic excitability. In addition, the phenomenon appears to be specific to adolescent drinking, as mice that established a drinking preference only after the onset of adulthood showed no change in alcohol sensitivity. Here we demonstrate not only that drinking during adolescence induces enhanced alcohol sensitivity, but also that this DA neuronal response occurs over a range of alcohol concentrations associated with social drinking in humans.

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