Found: the Brain's Binge-Drinking Reward Circuit

By James Oliver Cury Posted April 28, 2016

It's the first time that modern medicine has identified how the feedback loop works.

If you've ever seen a friend or family member who cannot stop drinking, you've witnessed the power of binge drinking in action. It's almost like watching someone get ambushed by an alien force; the biochemical takeover does not respond to reason or even repercussions. Now, for the first time in modern medical history, researchers have reportedly pinpointed two areas of the brain that work together to trigger and sustain this vicious circle.

A team at the University of North Carolina claim, in an article published in Biological Psychiarty, that the extended amygdala and ventral tegmental area (VTA) are the two areas of the brain that maintain the feedback loop: The brain gets a taste of alcohol, initially perceived as a stressor, chemicals are released, and suddenly the brain feels rewarded, so the body craves more alcohol—and there's no stopping it. The more you drink, the more rewarded your system feels. The brain is totally out of whack.

These findings stem from stress research originally performed on mice. Scientists found that between those two areas of the brain there lies a connective strand—filled with long projection neurons—that produces a chemical called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), which usually sends your body into anxiety. So when someone drinks, or so goes the hypothesis, their amygdala gets activated as if stressed, and that causes the brain to release CRF, which turns up the volume in the VTA (perceived as a reward).

While more research is needed, the goal is clear: Figure out a way to interrupt the feedback circuit that would end binge drinking—which many doctors believe can be an early indicator of alcoholism. "We know that people who binge drink, especially in their teenage years, are much more likely to become alcoholic-dependent later in life," says Dr Todd Thiele, behavioural neuroscientist at UNC and senior author of the article. Drugs will most likely be the solution.

In the U.S. alone, approximately one out of every six adults binge drinks once a week. Binging is defined, by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as a pattern of drinking that brings a person's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or more. Generally speaking, that translates into men consuming five or more drinks or women consuming four or more drinks over a two-hour period. And this ultimately adds more than $200 billion annually to healthcare costs.

[h/t Daily Mail]

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