Are you one of the millions of people in the United States who indulge in heavy drinking? A new study in Texas may help discourage you and countless others from taking another sip of beer or wine.
Researchers from the Texas A&M University have discovered that a person's alcohol drinking behavior could be easily influenced by activating a certain set of nerve cells in the brain. In fact, the prevalence of alcoholism or too much consumption of alcoholic liquor could even be prevented.
The group's previous research showed that drinking alcohol changes the physical structure and function of certain neurons known as medium spiny neurons, which are located in the brain's dorsomedial striatum.
In their previous study, scientists essentially found that the activation of the D1 neuron can determine whether one drink leads to more. A similar study was conducted by University of North Carolina (UNC).
Now, the same group of researchers in Texas discovered the type of neurons that can tell drinkers when to stop and potentially avoid alcohol consumption.
Stop And Go
According to scientists, the neurons involved in drinking habits can be thought of like a tree with many branches, as well as many tiny protrusions coming off of them. Each neuron contains either D1 or D2 dopamine receptors and can be referred to as either of these two.
Researchers said D1 neurons are informally part of a "go" pathway in the brain. On the other hand, D2 neurons are part of the opposite or the "no-go" pathway. This means that when these neurons are activated, they can discourage a person's action, telling you to stop, to wait or to do nothing.
Jun Wang, an assistant professor at the university and the corresponding author of the study, says D2 neurons are considered "good" from the perspective of addiction. When these neurons are turned on, they can inhibit drinking behavior.
"[T]herefore, activating them is important for preventing problem drinking behavior," says Wang.
Although this may seem like good news, researchers say the problem is that even in people who are not addicted to alcohol, D2 neurons tend to become deactivated when we drink too much.
The deactivation suggests that there is nothing telling us to stop drinking so we drink more. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle.
Testing Out The Hypothesis
Wang and his colleagues discovered that in animal models, recurrent cycles of too much alcohol consumption, followed by alcohol abstention, actually altered the strength of these neural branches. This made the D2 signals less powerful, and resulted in training the person to seek alcohol.
Wang mentioned an example: the binge-drinking problem among many young adults. He says these young adults are doing the same thing that they have found leads to inhibition of D2 neurons. It contributes to even greater alcohol intake.
Hope For Recovery?
The research team manipulated the activity of D1 and D2 neurons in animal trials and were able to change the alcohol-drinking behavior of the animal models.
By turning on the D2 neurons, the alcohol consumption was decreased. The more D2 neurons were activated, the stronger the effect.
Although Wang says there is still a long way before such an experiment is tested in human clinical trials, he believes that in theory, if scientists could develop drugs or use electrical stimulation that activates D2 neurons, then alcoholics might be prevented from wanting another bottle of beer.
Details of the study are published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.