Alcoholism is Progressive and Deadly
Ask heavy drinkers why they drink and one of the answers is bound to be that they drink because alcohol makes them feel good. Now scientists are one step closer to understanding why some people can drink in moderation while others crave alcohol so much that they become alcoholic.
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have announced new findings on how alcohol acts on the brain to make drinkers feel good. A UCSF study of a heavy drinkers found that drinking alcohol triggers the release of natural opiate-like endorphins in the pleasure and reward areas of the brain.
The study involved 13 heavy drinkers and 12 control subjects who did not drink heavily. Each test subject was given an alcohol drink and PET imaging was used to map the effects of the alcohol on test subjects’ brains. For both groups of subjects, drinking alcohol caused endorphins to be released. For the heavy drinkers, the release of endorphins led to stronger feelings of intoxication. This may mean that differences in the brains of heavy drinkers make them more susceptible to the alcohol-induced effects of feel-good endorphins.
According to lead author of the study, Jennifer Mitchell, PhD, the study indicates that people who have more of a reaction to endorphins that are released in response to alcohol are more likely to enjoy drinking and become alcoholics. The study could help scientists understand how and why some people develop drinking problems while others don’t. Researchers have suspected for decades that alcohol acts on endorphins and have conducted related animal studies, but the UCSF study marks the first time that endorphin release following alcohol consumption has been observed in human subjects.
The new findings may hold the key to more focused treatments for people who abuse alcohol and drugs. Now that scientists understand the specific areas of the brain that are affected by alcohol, treatments may be able to target those areas. “Heavy drinkers report a lot of pleasure from a drink of alcohol. That’s why we think drug treatment could be effective – if we can block that high, eventually they’ll learn that drink isn’t worth it anymore,” said Mitchell.