Early Life Stress as a Predictor of Co-Occurring Alcohol Use Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Richard S. Lee, Lynn M. Oswald, Gary S. Wand

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


During the critical developmental periods of childhood when neural plasticity is high, exposure to early life stress (ELS) or trauma may lead to enduring changes in physiological stress systems and enhanced vulnerability for psychopathological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) in adulthood. Clinical and preclinical studies have sought to understand the possible mechanisms linking ELS, PTSD, and AUD. Preclinical studies have employed animal models of stress to recapitulate PTSD-like behavioral deficits and alcohol dependence, providing a basic framework for identifying common physiological mechanisms that may underlie these disorders. Clinical studies have documented ELS-related endocrine dysregulation and genetic variations associated with PTSD and AUD, as well as disruption in crucial neural circuitry throughout the corticomesolimbic region. Despite limitations and challenges, both types of studies have implicated three interrelated mechanisms: hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and glucocorticoid signaling dysregulation, genetics, and epigenetics. ELS exposure leads to disruption of HPA axis function and glucocorticoid signaling, both of which affect homeostatic cortisol levels. However, individual response to ELS depends on genetic variations at specific genes that moderate HPA axis and brain function, thus influencing susceptibility or resilience to psychopathologies. Epigenetic-influenced pathways also are emerging as a powerful force in helping to create the PTSD and AUD phenotypes. Dysregulation of the HPA axis has an epigenetic effect on genes that regulate the HPA axis itself, as well as on brain-specific processes such as neurodevelopment and neurotransmitter regulation. These studies are only beginning to elucidate the underpinnings of ELS, PTSD, and AUD. Larger human cohorts, identification of additional genetic determinants, and better animal models capable of recapitulating the symptoms of PTSD and AUD are needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-159
Number of pages13
JournalAlcohol research : current reviews
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • addiction
  • alcohol use disorder
  • animal models
  • genotype
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • psychological stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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