, Volume 178, Issue 4, pp 367–380

Conceptual framework for the etiology of alcoholism: a “kindling”/stress hypothesis

  • George R. Breese
  • David H. Overstreet
  • Darin J. Knapp
Original Investigation

DOI: 10.1007/s00213-004-2016-2

Cite this article as:
Breese, G.R., Overstreet, D.H. & Knapp, D.J. Psychopharmacology (2005) 178: 367. doi:10.1007/s00213-004-2016-2



The rationale for proposing the “kindling”/stress hypothesis is to provide a conceptual basis for the insidious development and maintenance of alcohol abuse.

Objective and results

An objective of the hypothesis is to emphasize how continued alcohol abuse is linked to progressive neural adaptation. Work has shown that repeated withdrawals from chronic low levels of alcohol sensitize (“kindle”) anxiety-like behavior (“anxiety”) in rats, a finding consistent with multiple withdrawal kindling of seizure activity. Additionally, stress substitutes for initial cycles of the multiple withdrawal protocol to sensitize withdrawal-induced anxiety, which is indicative that stress is capable of facilitating neuroadaptive processes related to withdrawal. The persistence of adaptation caused by stress and multiple withdrawals is revealed by the appearance of withdrawal-induced anxiety following a future re-exposure to a single 5-day period of alcohol. This persisting adaptation also permits stress to induce anxiety during a period of abstinence—a response not observed in animals without previous exposure to alcohol. Furthermore, stress interacts with repeated withdrawals to enhance voluntary alcohol drinking. Results of other preclinical and clinical studies reported in the literature are integrated with these investigations in support of the proposed hypothesis.


The “kindling”/stress hypothesis is based on the premise that repeated withdrawals from cycles of chronic alcohol exposure contribute to a progressive development of persisting adaptive change that sensitizes withdrawal-induced anxiety and allows stress to evoke symptoms associated with negative affect during abstinence. Thus, these consequences of repeated withdrawals account for the evolution of major characteristics of alcoholism, which include worsened acute withdrawal symptoms and increased stress-induced negative affect during abstinence, both of which enhance the likelihood of relapse—and with relapse an inability to limit an abusive pattern of alcohol intake. The “kindling”/stress hypothesis provides a clear strategy for future studies to explore the advancing neural adaptation proposed to contribute to the pathogenesis of alcoholism.


Multiple withdrawals Restraint stress Anxiety Alcohol drinking Neural adaptation Alcohol deprivation effect Alcoholism Kindling Kindling/stress hypothesis 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • George R. Breese
    • 1
  • David H. Overstreet
    • 1
  • Darin J. Knapp
    • 1
  1. 1.Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, Departments of Psychiatry and PharmacologyUniversity of North Carolina School of MedicineChapel HillUSA

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