Structural and dielectric alteration by ethanol in vitro and chronic ethanol consumption were examined in synaptic plasma membranes (SPM) using diphenylhexatriene and charged diphenylhexatriene derivatives. These fluorophores, in combination with multifrequency phase and modulation fluorometry, allowed the examination of the surface and interior core of SPM. Limiting anisotropy and rotational relaxation time demonstrated that the synaptosomal plasma membrane surface domain was more rigid than the interior core domain. Ethanol in vitro fluidized the interior core and surface domains in SPM of the control, but not chronic ethanol-treated mice. Although the latter membranes were more rigid than control membranes, the intrinsic rigidity of the interior core of the synaptosomal plasma membrane did not strictly correlate with effects of ethanol in vitro. SPM of irradiated membranes were more rigid, but ethanol fluidized those membranes. Diphenylhexatriene lifetime and photoreactivity were sensitive to the range of dielectric constants in the SPM interior core. Ethanol in vitro increased both the surface and interior core range of dielectric constants of SPM from control but not chronic ethanol-treated animals. Thus, ethanol in vitro altered not only the fluidity but also the range of dielectric constants in both the surface and interior core domains in SPM of control but not chronic ethanol-treated mice.