Social isolation of rats immediately after weaning is thought to represent an animal model of anxiety-like disorders. This mildly stressful condition reduces the cerebrocortical and plasma concentrations of 3α-hydroxy-5α-pregnan-20-one (3α,5α-TH PROG) as well as increases the sensitivity of rats to the effects of acute ethanol administration on the concentrations of this neuroactive steroid. We further investigated the effects of voluntary consumption of ethanol at concentrations increasing from 2.5 to 10% over 4 weeks of isolation. Isolated rats showed a reduced ethanol preference compared with group-housed animals. Ethanol consumption did not affect the isolation-induced down-regulation of BDNF or Arc, but it attenuated the increase in the cerebrocortical concentration of 3α,5α-TH PROG induced by foot-shock stress in both isolated and group-housed animals as well as increased the percentage of number of entries made by socially isolated rats into the open arms in the elevated plus-maze test. Ethanol consumption did not affect expression of the α₄ subunit of the GABA(A) receptor in the hippocampus of group-housed or isolated rats, whereas it up-regulated the δ subunit throughout the hippocampus under both conditions. The results suggest that low consumption of ethanol may ameliorate some negative effects of social isolation on stress sensitivity and behavior.
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