, Volume 214, Issue 1, pp 17–31 | Cite as

The role of early life stress as a predictor for alcohol and drug dependence

  • Mary-Anne EnochEmail author



Genetic and environmental influences on the development of alcohol and drug dependence are equally important. Exposure to early life stress, that is unfortunately common in the general population, has been shown to predict a wide range of psychopathology, including addiction.


This review will look at the characteristics of early life stress that may be specific predictors for adolescent and adult alcohol and drug dependence and will focus on studies in humans, non-human primates and rodents.


Experiencing maltreatment and cumulative stressful life events prior to puberty and particularly in the first few years of life is associated with early onset of problem drinking in adolescence and alcohol and drug dependence in early adulthood. Early life stress can result in permanent neurohormonal and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis changes, morphological changes in the brain, and gene expression changes in the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway, all of which are implicated in the development of addiction. However, a large proportion of children who have experienced even severe early life stress do not develop psychopathology indicating that mediating factors such as gene–environment interactions and family and peer relationships are important for resilience.


There appears to be a direct pathway from chronic stress exposure in pre-pubertal children via adolescent problem drinking to alcohol and drug dependence in early adulthood. However, this route can be moderated by genetic and environmental factors. The role that gene–environment interactions play in the risk-resilience balance is being increasingly recognized.


Abuse Addiction Alcohol Corticotropin Dopamine Gene expression Glucocorticoid HPA axis Stress VTA 


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