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Friday, September 7, 2012

How Heavy Drinking Affects The Brain and Judgment

Sagittal human brain with cortical regions del...
Sagittal human brain with cortical regions delineated. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Anyone who works in the field of addiction recovery knows from listening to their clients' life stories that drinking heavily "can affect your judgment, your family, your work life and your health."  We learn about how people have miraculously survived horrific auto accidents, we witness the after affects of loss of employment and when we work with families during our family program we see the aftermaths of familial disruption including domestic violence. And even with all the visual evidence many still search to know empirically what is it about an alcoholic that ultimately brings on this life destroying behavior.

New research zeroes in on the brain...

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism teamed up with the University of North Carolina's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies to examine the link between alcoholism and anxiety disorders. Most scientific research starts with studying animals and their reaction to stimuli. And this new study is no exception. These researchers studied mice seeking to explain the link between alcoholism and anxiety disorders including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Specifically the researchers examined the affects of chronic alcohol consumption on the brain.

The research process...

The scientists studied two groups of mice: over a period of one month one group of mice was given alcohol doses equal to double the legal driving limit humans while the control group was given no alcohol.

The mice were given a cue (a tone) followed by a shock. The mice soon learn that the tone will be followed by a shock. In the beginning the shock brings on fear in both groups. Gradually the researchers only gave the tone cue and ceased following the cue with a shock. As the study progressed the mice who were given the alcohol doses continued to display fear response (even though the shock was eliminated), while the control group (non-alcohol) stopped displaying fear after the tone.

According to WRAL's report on the study:
"...researchers traced the effect to differences in the nerve cells in the brain's prefrontal cortex. The key receptor, called NDMA, was suppressed in the mice that received alcohol."

Watch WRAL's news video covering this new research...

If you are having trouble viewing the video you can see it here.

How to learn more about this research...

This study, "Chronic alcohol remodels prefrontal neurons and disrupts NMDAR-mediated fear extinction encoding" is published online on the journal Nature Neuroscience.
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