Oh, Science
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Oh, Science


This post was originally published on April 15, 2014.

The more I read about alcohol dependency research in the news, the more I come to understand the ongoing battle between science and addiction. I think it’s great that there’s continued interest in attempting to figure out what makes people alcoholic but whenever I read about new breakthroughs or studies about how alcohol affects the brain, I get a little bummed out. Because in these reports, there’s always a huge missing piece to the findings, reminding me of the lack of understanding about the disease of alcoholism.

Hangovers and Brains

News Medical put out an article recently about the lateral habenula, a part of the brain that is responsible for the physical consequences of drinking. It seems that a study done by neuroscientists at the University of Utah found that rats whose lateral habenula was inactive drank to excess and were less able to learn from the experience. But I suppose if you are a rat and you don’t have any negative physical consequences from drinking, the only thing to learn is how awesome drinking is: rats aren’t likely to feel the burn of losing their jobs or licenses or even cell phones because they were drunk.

The larger picture with a study like this is that if they can determine how active an individual’s lateral habenula is, then maybe they can predict the likelihood of that person becoming a problem drinker; this may help some but not most. In my experience, there are lots of people—myself included—who have a rich history of alcoholism in their family and were warned by loved ones and even doctors that experimenting with alcohol would be a dangerous game. Sure, sometimes those people never picked up a drink for that reason. But it wasn’t something I ever took into consideration at 14, when my drinking career began.

Science Still Can’t Explain Addiction

Surely scientists are hoping to eventually be able to control lateral habenula sensitivity—perhaps develop a medication that heightens sensitively and helps problem drinkers suffer the physical consequences sooner. But then what? So they can quit drinking by their own volition? This might be interesting if physical consequential drugs like Antabuse didn’t already exist. (While certainly these sorts of medications can be helpful in temporarily arresting out-of-control situations, they’re hardly effective solutions to alcoholism.)

This is where science gets frustrating for me. Although there’s a casual mention of “complex societal pressures” as a contributing factor to alcoholism, there’s no part of this article that addresses the fact that people who are alcoholic drink despite the negative consequences, both physical and environmental. That is inherently what makes a person an alcoholic—not the “escalation of intake,” which, according to University of Utah Neurobiology and Anatomy professor Sharif Taha, Ph.D, is what separates a social drinker from an alcoholic. Drinking escalation is the result of a larger problem: alcoholism. Science seems to be heavily focused on the physical dependency aspect of alcohol, which is really a minor and temporary part of the illness.

But there are signs that some in the science world are concerned about the psychological aspect of alcoholism. A study published by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on addictions found that when cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was combined with a new treatment called “affect regulation training,” patients showed a greater reduction in alcohol use than when CBT was used with a “health and wellness component” (whatever that means—hot yoga?). But then the article clarifies that this method works best with “people whose drinking is strongly tied to negative emotions,” as if there are some other kind. Now, I’m not saying that all people drink because they are disturbed; I’m saying that if your problem is big enough to land you in treatment, on some level you are disturbed even if it’s entirely about your drinking.

The 12 Steps and Science

Regardless of what people might think about 12-step programs, there’s evidence that they work, even if just for some. So why not adapt more elements of 12-step recovery into a scientific non-AA treatment of alcoholism? With the growing popularity of support groups for grief, battered women, cancer patients and everything else, we see that a lack of isolation and the sense of community created by these environments is effective.

Look, in the end, science is great. But when it comes to the treatment of alcoholism, I think we might be making things a bit too complicated.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.