Ethanol acts directly on extrasynaptic subtypes of GABAA receptors to increase tonic inhibition

Vijayalakshmi Santhakumar, Martin Wallner, Thomas S. Otis

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Based on the similarity of ethanol intoxication to the behavioral effects of drugs known to target γ-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors (GABARs), it has been suspected for decades that ethanol facilitates the activity of GABA. Even so, it has been surprisingly difficult to identify molecular targets of ethanol. Research conducted over the past several years suggests that a subclass of GABARs (those containing δ subunits) responds in a relevant concentration range to ethanol. Although δ subunit-containing GABARs are not ubiquitously expressed at inhibitory synapses like their γ subunit-containing, synaptic counterparts, they are found in many neurons in extrasynaptic locations. Here, they give rise to a tonic form of inhibition that can potently suppress neuronal excitability. Studies have shown that both recombinant and native δ subunit-containing GABARs (1) are modulated by behaviorally relevant (i.e., low millimolar) concentrations of ethanol, (2) directly bind ethanol over the same concentration range, (3) show altered function upon single amino substitutions linked to changes in behavioral responsiveness to ethanol, and (4) are a site of action of Ro15-4513, a competitive antagonist of ethanol binding and a drug which prevents many of the behavioral aspects of ethanol intoxication. Despite such comprehensive evidence, however, the field is not free from controversy. This review evaluates published data for and against a central role of δ subunit-containing GABARs in ethanol actions and suggests future directions that might help settle points of controversy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-221
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2007
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Biochemistry
  • Toxicology
  • Neurology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Alcohol
  • Alpha4 subunit
  • Alpha6 subunit
  • Cerebellum
  • Delta subunit
  • Tonic inhibition

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