Deep within the brain, a small almond-shaped region called the amygdala plays a vital role in how we exhibit emotion, behavior and motivation.
Understandably, it’s also strongly implicated in alcohol abuse.
In a new study, researchers found important changes to anti-inflammatory mechanisms in the amygdala that drive alcohol addiction.
They found that chronic alcohol exposure compromises brain immune cells, which are important for maintaining healthy neurons.
The resulting damage fuels anxiety and alcohol drinking that may lead to alcohol use disorder.
By countering this process, the researchers were able to stop excessive alcohol consumption—revealing a potential treatment path for alcohol use disorder.
The research was conducted by a team at the Scripps Research Institute.
In the study, the team focused on an immune protein called Interleukin 10, or IL-10, which is prevalent in the brain.
IL-10 is known to have potent anti-inflammatory properties, which ensures that the immune system doesn’t respond too powerfully to disease threats.
In the brain, IL-10 helps to limit inflammation from injury or disease, such as stroke or Alzheimer’s. But it also appears to influence key behaviors associated with chronic alcohol use.
In mice with chronic alcohol use, IL-10 was strongly reduced in the amygdala and didn’t signal properly to neurons, contributing to increased alcohol intake.
By boosting IL-10 signaling in the brain, however, the scientists could reverse the aberrant effects. Notably, they observed a big reduction in anxiety-like behaviors and motivation to drink alcohol.
These findings showed that inflammatory immune responses in the brain are very much at play in the development of alcohol use disorder.
But perhaps more importantly, they provided a new framework for therapeutic intervention, pointing to anti-inflammatory mechanisms.
Alcohol use disorder is widespread, affecting some 15 million people in the United States, and few effective treatments exist.
By examining how brain cells change with prolonged exposure to alcohol, the team has uncovered many possible new therapeutic approaches for those with alcohol addiction.
This study complements recent findings by the team demonstrating a causal role for microglia in the development of alcohol dependence.
One author of the study is Marisa Roberto, Ph.D., a professor in Scripps Research’s Department of Molecular Medicine.
The study is published in Progress in Neurobiology.
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