Findings of a new animal study have revealed that there could be a way to turn off the urge for compulsive alcohol drinking.
Study researchers Olivier George, from the The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), and colleagues have found a group of brain cells in rats that drives excessive alcohol drinking. Results of their study suggest that it is possible to reverse alcohol dependence by targeting this group of neurons.
For the research, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience on Sept. 7, the researchers wanted to know if there was a way to influence specific neurons in the neuronal circuit that drives alcohol use and addiction. In rats and humans, these neurons make up about 5 percent of the brain cells in the central amygdala, the region of the brain involved with emotions.
George and colleagues trained lab rats to self-administer and caused some of the animals to become dependent on alcohol. The researchers then injected the rats with a compound that turns off the alcohol-linked brain cells.
The researchers found that the rats completely stopped their compulsive drinking when these brain cells were inactivated and the change lasted for several weeks. George said it was as if the animals forgot that they were dependent on alcohol.
"We've never seen an effect that strong that has lasted for several weeks," said George.
Despite ceasing their compulsive drinking, the animals were still motivated to drink sugar water, which means that the researchers were successful at targeting only alcohol-activated neurons, and not the overall reward system of the brain.
The rats did not also exhibit unwanted alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness.
Further study is needed to translate these findings to humans as the researchers still have to determine if the same group of brain cells they targeted in rats also influences alcohol addiction in humans.
The findings nonetheless could potentially pave way for treatments that can address alcoholism in humans. Researchers have been conducting studies to come up with a cure for alcoholism. Researchers in Switzerland, for instance, are working on a drug that can reduce alcohol cravings by normalizing the brain's dopamine levels.
Figures from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reveal that as of 2014, about 16.3 million American adults had Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Nearly 88,000 people also die from alcohol-related causes per year, which makes alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.