Resisting Alcohol: A Region in the Brain Can Help

alcoholSpring breakers are surely recovering from their vacation escapades, feeling the full effects of being hung-over; however, there is a positive side to the nausea, sleepiness, and stumbling.[1] Neuroscientists at the University of Utah report that when a region in the brain—the lateral habenula—is inactivated in rats, they repeatedly drink in excess and are not as able to learn from the uncomfortable experience.1

When the rats with an inactivated lateral habenula were given access to a solution of 20 percent alcohol over a period of several weeks, they tended to escalate their alcohol drinking more rapidly and drank more heavily that the control rats.1

“In people, escalation of intake is what eventually separates a social drinker from someone who becomes an alcoholic,” said Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy Sharif Taha, PhD. “These rats drink amounts that are quite substantial. Legally, they would be drunk if they were driving.”1

Bad experiences activates the lateral habenula, and without this region of the brain, rats may drink more because they fail to learn from the negative outcomes of overindulging.1 Therefore, the researchers tested this idea by giving rats a sweet juice and then injected them with a dose of alcohol that was large enough to cause negative effects.1

“It is the same kind of learning that mediates your response in food poisoning,” said Taha. “You taste something and then you get sick, and then of course you avoid that food in future meals.”1

However, the rats with an inactivated lateral habenula still sought out the juice, even though it meant a repeat of a bad experience.1

“The way I look at it is the rewarding effects of drinking alcohol compete with the adverse effects,” said Andrew Haack, co-first author of the study. “When you take the aversive effects away which is what we did when we inactivated the lateral habenula, the rewarding effects gain more purchase, and so it drives up drinking behavior.”1

According to the researchers, the lateral habenula likely works in one of two ways.1 First, the region may regulate how badly an individual feels after drinking too much.1 Second, it may control how well an individual learns from their bad experience.1 Future research will help to determine which one is correct.1

“If we can understand the brain circuits that control sensitivity to alcohol’s aversive effects, then we can start to get a handle on who may become a problem drinker,” said Taha.1

[1] University of Utah Health Sciences. (2014, April 2). Brain region for resisting alcohol’s allure found. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 7, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140402211942.htm

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