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Friday, January 13, 2012

What Drives People to Drink?

Most people have a hard time understanding what drives people to drink or drug excessively. While we have a better understanding now than ever before in history, there are still many unanswered questions. New research is being conducted every day, shedding new light on this age old problem.

A new study provides clues about what is happening in the brain that drives people to abuse alcohol. The study found a link between how good people feel after they drink, and the amount of endorphins, proteins with opiate-like effects, released in their brain.

Findings like these have been seen in animal studies, but this is the first time they have been observed in humans, according to a news release by UCSF. The research was conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, one of the best medical schools in the country. “This is something that we’ve speculated about for 30 years, based on animal studies, but haven’t observed in humans until now,” said lead author Jennifer Mitchell, PhD. “It provides the first direct evidence of how alcohol makes people feel good.”

Researchers studied 25 volunteers; 13 were heavy social drinkers and 12 were not. Women were considered heavy social drinkers if they consumed 10 to 16 drinks a week, while men in that category had 14 to 20 drinks weekly, CNN reports. Women who were not heavy social drinkers had fewer than five drinks a week, while the men had fewer than seven drinks.

Brains were scanned using positron emission tomography (PET) to examine the distribution of chemicals produced in response to drinking. One drink led to the release of more endorphins in two brain regions that play a role in pleasure and reward for heavy drinkers. They perceived drinking as more pleasurable than the non-heavy drinkers. That feeling leads them to crave alcohol, the researchers said.

The findings appear in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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