It makes people go on downing wine, beer or spirits – even when they have had enough. The discovery opens the door to new drug therapies that combat alcohol misuse disorders.
We discovered a small group of nerve cells in a small region of the brain.Study leader Professor Markus Heilig, a psychiatrist at Linkoping University in Sweden.
While many people love the odd tipple, others get hooked on booze – and don’t know when to stop. It is the key to addiction – making a minority of individuals vulnerable to potential dangers.
The breakthrough could be particularly effective in treating problem drinkers – half of whom are believed to be genetically prone to addiction.
Prof Heilig said: “I had not expected such a small group of nerve cells would be so decisive for this complex behaviour. And I could not have imagined it would be possible to demonstrate so clearly – by manipulating these cells from outside – they cause it.”
The Swedish team pinpointed a mechanism in the middle of the amygdala – an area of grey matter linked to reward – known as PKC. The enzyme PKC played the key role – offering hope of developing medications that target it.
The protein fuelled alcohol consumption in susceptible rodents despite negative consequences, a phenomenon called ‘compulsive use’. Making decisions, such as whether to take another drink, is complex.
The brain has a system that values pleasures such as tasty food, sex and drugs – and drives us to seek more. It also contains a ‘brake’ to balance the pros and cons – that fails in heavy drinkers. When the neurons were turned off using state-of-the-art molecular methods, the animals’ ability to refrain was restored.
How The Study Worked
In the study, published in Science Advances, rats learned they could press a lever to obtain a small amount of alcohol. After a period, the conditions changed, such that they received an electric shock together with the alcohol.
In this case, most rats stopped. But the brake failed to function in around 1-in-3 rats, and they continued to self-administer the drink. This was despite it now being associated with discomfort. A marker that forms in triggered nerves lit up cells across the brain.
Rats have been used in scientific research for decades now. Find out what science has learnt about drugs from research involving rats in the video below.
The hub was tracked to the central amygdala which is involved in learning mechanisms coupled with fear.
Three years ago the researchers showed choosing alcohol in preference to another reward is also controlled by it. The scientists could switch the behaviour on and off by manipulating molecular mechanisms in this part of the brain.
What Does This Mean For Their Human Counterparts?
Recent research by other scientists suggests that humans and animals be split into two groups regarding reward-seeking behaviour. They can either put the brake on it when it may have negative consequences – or not.
Prof Heilig called for further investigations into clinical markers that can reveal whether a person has an individual vulnerability to addiction. Like all other treatments and therapies that are employed in addiction recovery, early discovery may make it possible to use preventive measures and early access to treatment improves overall success rates.
We must understand the inability to break behaviour that is becoming detrimental is an important risk factor and also maintains addiction once it has developed and taken hold.Prof Heilig
She goes on to say, “We must reinforce the ability to brake alcohol-seeking activity in people who run an increased risk of developing addiction, not only by working with their behaviour, but also by developing new medications and medication assisted treatments (MAT) that target the molecular mechanisms behind the behaviour.”
There were 7,423 deaths from alcohol misuse in England and Wales last year – a rise of 20% from 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found.
Deaths increased from March 2020 onwards when the UK’s coronavirus epidemic forced the first national lockdown. Most deaths were related to long-term drinking problems and dependency. The ONS defines alcohol deaths as those directly caused by misuse of alcohol.
Around 80% were from alcoholic liver disease, 10% from mental and behavioural disorders, and 6% from accidental poisoning. The were also a rise in poly-pharmacy overdoses and deaths in 2021 (when more than one substance is taken at the same time).
UK guidelines advise people to drink a maximum of 14 units of alcohol – equivalent to six large glasses of wine, or six pints of beer a week, and to spread any drinking over a three day period or more if possible.
Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver, an increased risk of developing a number of other chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, the development of mental health issues as well as increasing your risk of having a stroke.Drink ‘n’ Drugs
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