Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain: Important New Information

Do we always learn from our mistakes? New research suggests that alcoholics may not. University of Utah neuroscientists recently published a study that can help us understand behaviors that can influence alcohol addiction.

Research in rats suggests that a region in the brain called the lateral habenula controls the ability to learn from an experience. When chronically inactivated in the brain, rats repeatedly drank to excess, indicating they were not learning from previous negative experience.

What kind of negative experience are we talking about? Those who drink regularly are familiar with the experience of having a hangover. Nausea, headache and body sluggishness are a few common symptoms of alcohol abuse. They can serve the beneficial purpose of deterring an immediate repeat of the behavior. Until now, little was understood about how those mechanisms were controlled.

“It’s the same kind of learning that mediates your response in food poisoning. You taste something and then you get sick, and then of course you avoid that food in future meals,” explained Sharif Taha, PhD and study investigator. “In people, escalation of intake is what eventually separates a social drinker from someone who becomes an alcoholic.”

Future work will need to be done to determine if the lateral habenula may be controlled to regulate how badly or how well an individual feels after getting intoxicated.

“If we can understand the brain circuits that control sensitivity to alcohol’s aversive effects, then we can start to get a handle on who may become a problem drinker,” said Taha.

The more we understand about brain function, the better we can intervene with those who show a propensity for problem drinking and help those who have developed full-blown alcoholism. To this end, it is important to know the difference between moderate, heavy and binge drinking.

A moderate drinker may have as much as one or two drinks daily; binge drinkers consume four or more drinks in a short amount of time occasionally; heavy drinkers may be of the daily or sporadic type, but generally drink to the point of intoxication. How intoxicated a person becomes depends on whether the person is male or female, large or small. Binge drinking and heavy drinking can both lean toward addiction when symptoms of tolerance develop. Addicts need larger amounts of alcohol to keep getting the same effect and can experience withdrawal when not drinking. Sleeping difficulties and irritability often encourage more drinking, and thus continues the drinking cycle.

“It’s difficult to know in the early stages when someone has crossed the line from heavy drinking to alcoholism,” said Richard Taite, founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu addiction treatment center. “But it’s clear that once someone is no longer enjoying his or her drinking, drinking is a problem and it’s time to get help.”

When a person drinks alcohol to excess their personality changes. The person usually does not realize this or refuses to accept the truth. They will often claim that their experience is being exaggerated. Research is now offering new hope to these individuals who cannot see the extent or damage caused by their behavior. Knowing who may be prone to addiction and having the ability to properly regulate the brain to react to stimuli could help many people control themselves. Meanwhile, there are quality therapies available in top-notch treatment centers for those who have developed alcoholism.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Educate yourself, family and friends about the social and mental issues concerning alcohol abuse. Don’t wait until it may be too late. The life you save me be that of someone you love.