A new study has increased our knowledge of what causes alcohol addiction and highlights potential new ways alcoholism can be treated. Researchers found that when alcohol is consumed the bain releases endorphins. While this has long been predicted, these new results reinforce what many experts suspected.A study at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Centre, San Francisco, has revealed why alcohol is addictive. Drinking alcohol leads to the release of endorphins, in the area that produces feelings of pleasure and reward. This is the first time that endorphin release - in the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex - has been observed in humans consuming alcohol. Jennifer Mitchell, clinical project director, said 'This is something that we're speculated about for 30 years, based on animal studies, but haven't observed in humans until now.' She continued, 'It provides the first direct evidence of how alcohol makes people feel good.'
Researchers employed something called positron emission tomography, or PET imaging in the study. This allowed them to observe the effects of alcohol in the brains of 25 participants - 13 heavy drinkers, and 12 occasional drinkers.
Alcohol intake led to the release of endorphins in all of the subjects, and as more endorphins were released in the nucleus accumbens, the feelings of pleasure became greater. However, as more endorphins were released in the orbitofrontal cortex, the feelings of intoxication only became greater in the heavy drinkers.
Of the results, Mitchell said “This indicates that the brains of heavy or problem drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant.' She added that this 'may be a clue to how problem drinking develops in the first place...that greater feeling of reward might cause them to drink too much.”
The research also provides an insight into how to effectively treat alcoholism. Indeed Howard L. Fields, professor of neurology at University of California, stated 'The discovery of the precise locations in the brain where endorphins are released provides a possible target for the development of more effective drugs for the treatment of alcohol abuse.'
Indeed, the study allowed researchers to map the exact locations of opioid receptors, or areas of the brain that respond to substances such as alcohol and heroin. Currently, most medications used to treat alcoholism block many opioid receptors at once, causing the user to feel ill. But with the help of this research, medication may be produced that targets a specific opioid receptor - or in other words, it may reduce the desire to drink alcohol without causing any ill side-effects.