Treatment for alcoholism largely depends on strategies focused on in therapy, with some physicians working with patients to try a medication in addition to therapy. The use of medication has had mixed results, but experts hope that in the future there will be more options for treating alcohol addiction with the assistance of medication.
A new study may provide critical information necessary to the development of an effective drug to treat alcohol addiction. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco have pinpointed a specific area of the brain involved in alcohol addiction.
Using brain imaging, researchers have discovered specific differences in how the brain responds in both light and heavy drinkers. Among both types of drinkers, consuming alcohol showed that there was a release of endorphins in specific areas of the brain. The regions affected are responsible for reward processing.
In the heavy drinkers group, however, there were more endorphins released in response to consumption of alcohol and they described a more intense feeling of intoxication than the light drinkers after consuming the same amount of alcohol.
The researchers recruited 13 individuals who reported that they were heavy drinkers and 12 individuals who were light drinkers. The team used PET imaging to analyze opioid release in the brain before and following the consumption of the same amount of alcohol.
The difference may be due to an increased pleasure response that causes some people to get more pleasure out of alcohol consumption and be more likely to overindulge. These same people may be more likely to become alcoholics, according to researcher Jennifer M. Mitchell, Ph.D. She explains that a higher level of endorphin release was connected with heavy drinking.
Mitchell says that the research could help in the development of more effective drugs to treat alcohol abuse. Naltrexone is an existing drug used to treat alcohol abuse. It blocks the opioid response to help offset alcohol cravings, but it does not work for everyone who takes it.
According to Mitchell, the increased understanding gained in this study of the endorphin receptors associated with the pleasure response to alcohol could result in improved treatments that specifically affect the reward centers. By contrast, Naltrexone operates by hitting many receptors in the brain. The researchers hope their findings will aid in the development of a more specific drug treatment.
The study’s findings are published in the January edition of the journal Science Translational Medicine.