In a study of animal models, a team of researchers at the Texas A&M University have found that alcohol can reshape the brain physically.
Specifically, the scientists discovered alcohol can act on both the structure and the function of neurons in a brain region which affects goal-driven behaviours.
This breakthrough offers new insights to alcoholism, as well as other addictions.
“My ultimate goal is to understand how the addicted brain works, 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,” says Jun Wang, one of the researchers in the project.
The study, which aimed to learn how some people become addicted to alcohol, used animal models to understand how alcohol consumption transforms the brain. The alcohol transformed the anatomy and physiology of a brain region known as the dorsomedial striatum, which made neurons involved in cravings more impulsive.
As the neurons became more sensitive, they required less stimulation to activate, meaning one sip of beer can have you looking for another bottle or three.
“This creates a cycle where drinking causes easier activation, and activation causes more drinking,” the scientists explained. In time, these changes in brain function are bound to lead to alcoholism.
The end goal of the study is to find a treatment for alcoholism and maybe even other addictions. With the new-found knowledge of the brain and the affected neurons, scientists tested blocking the receptors. Sure enough, the animal models that were given a drug to control the activity of these neurons showed a reduced desire to drink, even if they suffered from alcoholism.
The next step is confirming their findings with human subjects.
“If we suppress this activity, we’re able to suppress alcohol consumption. This is the major finding. Perhaps in the future, researchers can use these findings to develop a specific treatment targeting these neurons,” said Wang.