Early life experiences and alcohol use in youth : An emerging role of the Vesicular Glutamate Transporters

Abstract: Initiation of alcohol consumption usually takes place during adolescence, a period characterized by a plethora of physical and emotional changes. Towards early adulthood, hazardous drinking patterns can emerge and potentially lead to the development of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Both positive and negative experiences during early life can shape brain development and, through interactions with the genetic make-up, can contribute to the vulnerability of an individual to develop AUD. Epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation, potentially mediate the effect of environmental influences on gene expression, thus serving as the missing link between gene, environment and phenotype. Among various neuroadaptive changes seen in AUD, those within the glutamatergic system appear particularly prominent, mainly in withdrawal and relapse states, but also in stress-related outcomes. The glutamatergic phenotype can be determined by the expression of the Vesicular Glutamate Transporters 1-3 (VGLUT1-3). To date, the relationship between early life experiences, alcohol consumption, and Vgluts/VGLUTs genes (rodents/humans) in the initial stage of alcohol consumption and during the sensitive period of late adolescence/young adulthood has not been investigated.The present thesis, based on three studies on rodents and one on humans, aimed to examine Vglut/VGLUT1-3 correlates of early life experiences and alcohol drinking during youth. The effect of co-exposure to nicotine, because of its high comorbidity with alcohol use, as well as the role of key DNA methylation-regulating genes was also investigated. The main finding showed that individuals exposed to early life stress were more sensitive to the effect of alcohol on Vglut1-3 mRNA expression and DNA methylation, as well as expression of the DNA methylation-regulating genes, in limbic and striatal brain regions, as compared with controls. In an independent sample, prolonged nicotine co-exposure with alcohol during adolescence was associated with higher Vglut2 expression in the ventral tegmental area of young adult rats. Lastly, the single nucleotide polymorphism rs2290045 in VGLUT2 was found to moderate the environmental sensitivity to alcohol-related problems in humans. Carriers of the minor allele (T) displayed differential susceptibility to the environment; increasing quality of parenting was associated with higher and lower alcohol-related problems in the absence and presence of previous maltreatment, respectively.In conclusion, the findings highlight for the first time the role of Vgluts/VGLUTs in early stress-mediated sensitivity towards alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems during adolescence and young adulthood, and especially a potential Vglut2/VGLUT2-mediated molecular signature behind the interactive mechanisms of these two aversive environmental factors, as well as of nicotine co-exposure.