Researchers in a study to be published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, summarized here, have found that the way an individual responds to a drink of alcohol may indicate presence of a risk to develop an alcohol problem. By way of introduction to the topic of this research study, I'll give a quick summary of brain chemistry of addiction.

For a number of years now, science has revealed that most drugs of abuse, including alcohol, operate in large part by causing a feeling of pleasure, or a "high", because of the drug's ability to trigger a flood of dopamine, a feel good chemical, in the reward pathway of the human brain. Dopamine is the chemical, also called a neurotransmitter, that is produced when we humans engage in pleasurable behaviors such as sex or eating food, etc. The theory is that production of dopamine can reinforce behaviors essential to human survival such as eating and reproduction. The amount of the feel good chemical dopamine that is produced by using drugs such as cocaine or alcohol is far in excess of that produced normally through natural functions (sex, eating) and the intense pleasure or high produced forms the basis for wanting to get the feeling again by using the drug that triggered the feeling. Or, as stated in fancier language by one of the researchers in the study under discussion:

"For example, in both laboratory animals and people, increased dopamine transmission seems to enhance the ability of reward-related stimuli to grab attention and attract you. This effect likely contributes to why having one drink increases the probability of getting a second one – the alcohol-induced dopamine response makes the second drink look all the more desirable." ***These DA [dopamine] systems appear to be especially important in determining the degree to which rewards become desired. So, if they are activated to an abnormal degree, this can result in pathological 'wanting' or 'craving' for associated rewards. This is what drugs of abuse are thought to do – they increase DA activity more than what is normal, and when taken repeatedly, the ability of drugs to activate DA [dopamine] systems is often further increased or 'sensitized.'"

The researchers studied a group of social drinkers who were at varying degrees of risk of developing an alcohol problem, and using brain imaging studies, "… found that people vulnerable to alcoholism might experience an unusually large response [to the dopamine feel good chemical] in the brain's reward-seeking pathway when they take a drink" *** "This finding is compelling", said the researchers. "For example, a large dopamine response might energize reward seeking and counteract the sedative effects that are the focus of the intoxication measure. Conversely, people who experience minimal dopamine release when they drink might find the sedative effects of alcohol especially pronounced."

So, we have in this small study another indicator of an area for more research that might result in the ability to find a marker (reaction to pleasure through dopamine) that may predict who is vulnerable to developing an alcohol problem.

As always, comments are invited. Jan Edward Williams, 08/20/2013.


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