Excessive alcohol use can take its toll on the body, but so can alcohol withdrawal symptoms and years of struggling with the temptation to drink. Researchers may have just made a discovery that can help reverse alcohol dependence, without withdrawal symptoms, allowing alcoholics to live a normal life.
The research comes from assistant professor Olivier George, Ph.D., along with other researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). The researchers published their study results in The Journal of Neuroscience September 7th. They set out to discover if a change in neurons associated with drinking is a consequence of consuming alcohol, or if it is the trigger for alcohol cravings, but what they found may be much more significant.
For their study, the researchers used two groups of rats. The one group of rats were not alcohol-dependent but would binge-drink alcohol from time to time, and the other group of rats were alcohol-dependent. The researchers had bred the rats to express a certain protein only when the neurons related to alcohol were activated, so they could track whether the rat brains were feeling reward when consuming alcohol.
When rats, or humans, frequently drink alcohol, certain groups of neurons activate in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions, behavior, and motivation. The more the rats drink, the more these neurons activate, reinforcing the link between drinking and reward in the brain. This then drives more alcohol use to get more reward. This may be familiar to humans as the need to drink more and more to get the same “buzz.”
The study involved injecting both groups of rats with a certain compound called Daun02 which would inactivate the neurons associated with alcohol use, although not other neurons associated with reward. Both groups of rats continued to drink sugar water, suggesting that the reward system in their brains was still functioning. However, when the rats were exposed to alcohol, the effect was different. The binge-drinking and alcohol-dependent rats all stopped drinking alcohol. Not only that, the previously alcohol-dependent rats continued to avoid alcohol for several weeks. This seemed to show that inactivating the neurons in the brain that were associated with alcohol rewards completely stopped the addicted rats from craving alcohol.
There were some differences in the alcohol-dependent rats versus the binge-drinking rats. Although the alcohol-dependent rats continued to avoid drinking for many weeks, the non-alcohol dependent rats went back to drinking the next day. This seems to indicate that their brains had not yet linked alcohol to rewards as deeply as in the addicted rats, so turning off the rewards link in the brain did not have the same effect.
The researchers thought their results seemed too good to be true, with one simple compound effectively curing alcoholism in the rats. However, when they repeated their experiment two more times, they found the same results: the compound stopped the rats from wanting to drink alcohol. According to Dr. George, “It’s like they forgot they were dependent.”
As anyone who has gone through alcohol or drug withdrawal knows, the experience can be tough, with severe shaking and other symptoms for the first little while. However, the rats seemed to avoid these symptoms, simply stopping their cravings without any side effects.
The research is still at the beginning stages, with much more work to do. Future studies would have to track the formation of these alcohol reward pathways in the brain over time, in the rats and in humans. Researchers would then need to discover if the compound to turn off the alcohol reward neurons also works in humans, and if there are any negative side effects. If the research leads to a treatment for alcoholism, it could be a huge benefit for anyone hoping to reduce their alcohol dependence and avoid becoming addicted again in the future. The research could also lead to similar treatments for drug addiction. Understanding how the links between alcohol and rewards form in the brain could also potentially help develop treatments to prevent someone from becoming an alcoholic in the first place.
Alcoholism refers to physical, mental, or social problems related to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. At first, alcohol can seem to improve mood and make people feel more relaxed, but as an individual drinks more, they need more alcohol to get the same good feeling. Eventually, they will not get a buzz out of alcohol at all, but if they stop drinking, they will experience withdrawal symptoms in the first few days and up to a year. These alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, agitation, headaches, nausea and vomiting, high blood pressure, shaking and hand tremors, sweating and fever, disorientation, hallucinations, altered consciousness, insomnia, and seizures. Current treatment can include drugs to treat some of the symptoms, vitamins, and counseling.