Dan Selvage, an assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, is conducting a five-year study with a $1.1 million grant recently received from the National Institute of Health.
He said the findings are significant because consistently high levels of stress hormones can mask the body's natural feedback and create stress-related disorders.
"If you have an infection, you won't notice the symptoms of it until it gets much worse because the stress hormones are blocking the way your body would respond to it and take care of it," Selvage told the Idaho State Journal.
Eventually, he said, the study could lead to gender-specific treatments for alcohol abuse in humans.
"Females tend to suffer the ravages of alcoholism much more quickly than males," Selvage said. "Part of that's due to metabolism, but another part of that is thought to be that alcohol activates body stress responses a lot more in females."
He said premenopausal females in particular have a much higher incidence of stress-related disorders, and that stress suppresses the immune system, leading to an array of health problems.
Selvage said alcohol tends to decrease testosterone secretion in males, but increases estrogen production in females. Extra estrogen, he said, is linked to an increased stress response.
"Stress responses originate at the level of the brain, and of course, the brain communicates with the pituitary, which then sends signals to the adrenal glands that release what's called cortisol," Selvage said.
Cortisol increases blood pressure and blood sugar while dulling the body's immune responses, Selvage said.
He said the study is being done in such a way so that small amounts of alcohol are injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid of the rats.
"We give an animal with low estrogen levels alcohol and then we see what its stress response is by measuring hormones in the blood or by measuring activation of certain areas in the brain," Selvage said. "Then we look at a similar animal with high estrogen levels, give them alcohol and see what kind of response we get.
"We really look throughout the brain to see what brain pathways are involved in receiving this noxious alcohol. The whole idea is to come up with ways to try and block that stress response as well as you can."