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Brain chemistry behind link between stress and excessive drinking, finds study

Brain chemistry behind link between stress and excessive drinking, finds study

April 04 | By Rachael

One can feel stressed due to myriad reasons and the method of handling stress varies from person to person. Many a times, people take to drinking to overcome stress, though the brain chemistry interlinking stress and alcohol is not known yet.

A group of scientists recently suggested that a detailed investigation of the brain chemistry forming the basis of the association between stress and drinking could help in understanding the causes of mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study, titled “Stress Increases Ethanol Self-Administration via a Shift toward Excitatory GABA Signaling in the Ventral Tegmental Area,” observed that rodents exposed to stress had a weakened dopamine response system due to exposure to alcohol that made them drink more alcohol compared to those classified in the control group.

The study, published in the journal Neuron in October 2016, showed reduced dopamine signaling in response to ethanol contained in alcohol. The changes were attributed to the alterations in the circuitry in the ventral tegmental area, the heart of the reward system of the brain.

As part of the research, the rodents underwent extreme stress for an hour. After 15 minutes, the researchers assessed the amount of sugar water containing ethanol that the mice consumed. The stressed rats consumed more liquid compared to the rats in the control group. The increase in the liquid laced with ethanol continued for several weeks. Elucidating on the behavior exhibited by the rats, lead author of the study Dr. John Dani, chair of the department of neuroscience at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “The stress response evolved to protect us, but addictive drugs use those mechanisms and trick our brains to keep us coming back for more.”

The researchers observed that due to stress, the reward circuitry seemed normal at the first instance, but changes in neurons were noticed along with blunted dopamine response to alcohol when the circuits were closely observed. The alterations observed in neuron physiology implied that a particular set of neurons that are normally inhibitory tend to flip and become excitatory. This flip changes the response of the rats to ethanol, resulting in an increase in the consumption of the liquid.

To counter the negative impact of the erroneous excitatory signal, the team chemically blocked the excitatory switch within the reward circuitry. This correction arrested the decreased alcohol-induced dopamine signal, thus, forcing the stressed rats to drink less alcohol. Elaborating on the same, Dani added, “We gave the rats a chemical called CLP290 to restore the stress-altered circuitry to normal, which in turn corrected the firing of the dopamine neurons.”

Changes in brain circuitry recommended to control drinking

The observations are important considering that a large number of people in the United States consume alcohol to alleviate stress. An increasing number of people also resort to addictive substances to combat the stress experienced during employment. Considering the fact that army veterans increasingly complain of pain and emotional outbursts, characteristic of PTSD, the findings may go a long way in realizing the nature of alterations doctors need to make in their brain circuitry to prevent them from drinking in excess.

Stressing on the significance of the findings, Dani added, “This line of research has implications for people with PTSD who have an increased risk for over-use of alcohol and drugs.” The findings would also help in creation of compounds that can help normalize the firing of neurons in the reward system of the brain to help check excessive drinking.

Sobriety is possible

It may seem a challenge to control one’s alcoholic habit, but it is possible. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, it is important to seek professional help. Contact the Colorado Alcohol Addiction Help to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment centers in Colorado. Call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-592-9261 or chat online to know about our holistic treatment approach and the best alcohol addiction treatment clinics in Colorado.

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