Tracing the root cause alcohol addiction in the brain

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Researchers from the University of Warwick and other institutions have made a significant breakthrough in understanding alcohol addiction. Their study reveals that alcohol addiction’s physical origin lies in a brain network that manages our response to danger.

The Brain’s Danger Response Network

The key areas involved are the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) at the front of the brain and the dorsal periaqueductal gray (dPAG) in the brain’s core.

The mOFC detects unpleasant or emergency situations and relays this information to the dPAG, which processes whether we need to escape the situation.

How Alcohol Affects This Network

The study identifies two imbalances in this brain pathway that increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorders:

  1. Inhibition of the dPAG by Alcohol: Normally, the dPAG processes adverse situations, signaling when to escape danger. Alcohol inhibits the dPAG, dulling the brain’s response to negative signals. This leads individuals to experience only the benefits of drinking, not its harmful side effects, potentially causing compulsive drinking.
  2. Over-Excited dPAG in Alcohol Addiction: People with alcohol addiction often have an overactive dPAG. They constantly feel like they’re in an adverse situation and urgently turn to alcohol to escape, leading to impulsive drinking.

Insights from Rodent Models and Human Brain Scans

Prior rodent studies had suggested that the mPFC and dPAG could be precursors to alcohol dependence. Building on this, the researchers analyzed MRI brain scans from the IMAGEN dataset, which included 2000 individuals from the UK, Germany, France, and Ireland.

During task-based functional MRI scans, participants who showed signs of alcohol abuse exhibited more inhibited regulation between the mOFC and dPAG, especially when they didn’t receive rewards (creating feelings of punishment).

The Global Impact of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is a major and common mental illness. The WHO reported in 2018 that over 3 million deaths annually are related to alcohol use, contributing to 5.1% of the global burden of disease.

Understanding the brain mechanisms behind alcohol addiction is crucial. This knowledge could lead to more effective interventions and strategies to address the worldwide problem of alcohol abuse.

Key Takeaways

This study, published in Science Advances by Professor Jianfeng Feng and his team, offers new insights into how alcohol addiction forms in the human brain.

This breakthrough could pave the way for improved treatments and a better understanding of alcohol-related disorders, potentially benefiting millions of people affected by alcohol abuse.

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