Science May Be Able to Turn Alcoholics Into Normal Drinkers

Science May Be Able to Turn Alcoholics Into Normal Drinkers

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This post was originally published on October 8, 2015.

Alcoholism, like all addictions, often has multiple causes, and there are many theories as to why people get hooked, from the biological to the psychological. Most scientists agree there’s something a bit wonky in the brain chemistry of alcoholics, but pinpointing the precise biological cause for destructive drinking has been tricky.

But now a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience has shed some light on the biological underpinnings of destructive drinking on a very microscopic level and it may lead to a potential cure.

Why We Crave Booze

Researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of California, San Francisco, have uncovered the effect alcohol has on an important dopamine receptor in the brain. To do this, they got a group of mice good and drunk while keeping a placebo group of mice sober. Brain scans revealed neurological changes in the brains of the drunk mice, changes not found in the brains of the sober group (big shocker, I know).

The changes were apparent in a part of the brain known as the dorsomedial striatum, which contains a concentration of neurons that house either of two dopamine receptors. When one of those receptors, known as D1, is stimulated, it propels someone to do something, to engage in goal-oriented action. The D2 receptor does the exact opposite—stimulation propels someone to stop a behavior, which would certainly come in handy when we’re talking about not polishing off five whiskeys on the rocks.

The scientists discovered that only the D1 receptor is affected by alcohol consumption. So when you drink a lot of booze, the D1 neurons in the striatum get very excited and, as a result, you become extra driven to take action, which means doing more drinking. As you drink more, the receptor is stimulated again, triggering even more action.

It all adds up to a vicious cycle where you keep chasing the neural stimulation. It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail, which, I suppose, pretty much sums up addiction in general.

“If these neurons are excited, you will want to drink alcohol,” Dr. Jun Wang, lead author of the study, explains in a news  release. “You’ll have a craving.”

The Key to a Cure?

Perhaps most significantly, when the mice were given a drug to block the D1 receptor, they stopped drinking the booze. “If we suppress this activity, we’re able to suppress alcohol consumption,” Wang says. “This is the major finding. Perhaps in the future, researchers can use these findings to develop a specific treatment targeting these neurons.”

“My ultimate goal is to understand how the addicted brain works,” Wang adds, “and once we do, one day, we’ll be able to suppress the craving for another round of drinks and, ultimately, stop the cycle of alcoholism.”

It’s a noble effort by Dr. Wang and his colleagues to push hard to find the neurological underpinnings of alcoholism and thus create a drug that can stop the craving process.

Still, if they do develop such a pill, I’d only take it after years of clinical trials and a sworn affidavit from a friend stating it really  works. It would also be nice if they offered injections of the stuff that would last forever, you know, like the vaccines for polio and hep B.

I wouldn’t want to accidentally forget to pop the pill and wind up on a gnarly bender.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.