Mice given an ethanol-containing liquid diet, as their sole source of nutrients and fluid, rapidly developed functional tolerance to and physical dependence on ethanol. The presence of physical dependence was demonstrated by measured signs of central nervous system hyperexcitability upon withdrawal of ethanol. The withdrawal hyperexcitability, which included tremors, handling-induced seizures and spontaneous clonic/tonic seizures, was more pronounced when mice consumed the ethanol-containing diet for 7 days, compared with 5 days. Daily treatment of the animals with either a ganglioside mixture (extracted bovine brain gangliosides, 250 or 500 mg/kg i.p.) or ganglioside GM1 (100 mg/kg i.p.) for the terminal two-thirds of the ethanol administration period resulted in a significant reduction in the ethanol withdrawal signs. On the other hand, tolerance to the hypnotic action of ethanol, tested 30 hr after withdrawal of ethanol, was unaffected by ganglioside treatment. Ganglioside GM1 given i.c.v. at a daily dose of 10 micrograms during the ethanol ingestion period was as effective as 100 mg/kg GM1 given i.p. in reducing signs of ethanol withdrawal. The daily administration of gangliosides during the feeding of the ethanol diet did not alter the animals' ethanol consumption, intoxication or blood ethanol levels at the time of ethanol withdrawal. A single dose of GM1 given either i.p. or i.c.v. 16 hr before withdrawal produced no effect on the measured ethanol withdrawal signs. Our prior work and the work of others has demonstrated a relationship between up-regulation of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor numbers in brain and the manifestation of ethanol withdrawal signs. Daily administration of GM1, during the last 5 days of a 7-day period of ethanol ingestion, prevented the up-regulation of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors in the hippocampus and reduced the ethanol withdrawal signs. Our data demonstrate that the daily administration of gangliosides during the period of ethanol consumption may prevent the development of ethanol physical dependence, while leaving ethanol tolerance intact.