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Study offers insights on how alcohol affects the brain

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that four times a month more than 38 million Americans go on a drinking binge and consume an average of eight alcoholic beverages within a few hours. This raises the question: Why are some people able to enjoy alcohol in moderation while others overindulge?

Findings published today in Science Translational Medicine may help in explaining the neurological underpinnings of alcohol consumption and addiction and, potentially, lead to the development of more effective treatments for people with drinking problems.

In the study (subscription required), researchers used positron emission tomography, or PET scans, to examine the effects of alcohol in the brains of 13 heavy drinkers and 12 control subjects, who were not heavy drinkers. The Checkup reports:

In all 25, drinking alcohol triggered the release of endorphins -- chemical neurotransmitters that, when they bind to certain receptors in the brain, induce feelings of pleasure. For all subjects, the more endorphins that were released in the pleasure-promoting part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, the more pleasure the subjects reported feeling.

But for the heavy drinkers only, the more endorphins released in the brain area called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is associated with reward processing, the more intoxicated they reported feeling. That phenomenon did not occur among the non-heavy drinkers.

The findings suggest that some people’s brains are more likely than others to respond to alcohol by producing feelings of reward and pleasure, which may cause them to seek that sensation more regularly and thus crave alcohol more than people whose brains don’t work that way. That sequence could lead to their becoming problem drinkers

Previously: CDC binge-drinking study demonstrates cell phones’ value in research, Patterns of alcohol consumption may determine alcohol’s influence on heart health, A sobering study suggests that binge drinking may lead to permanent brain damage, Fighting binge drinking on campusCollege without booze: harder than it sounds and Does drinking alcohol in moderation improve health?
Photo by Kirti Poddar

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