Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
For the 18 million Americans suffering from alcohol-abuse problems, the daily struggle is much more complex than just deciding not to have a drink. While a growing amount of evidence suggests that the disease is as much a physiological problem as a psychological one, treatments haven't yet caught up with the science. Current options are limited to counseling and 12-step programs (which don't work for everyone) and a few pharmaceutical alternatives that are far from perfect.
But, a new study may have unlocked the key to understanding the physiological mechanism behind alcoholism. Conducted by researchers at the University of Utah and published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, the study looked at the effect of the lateral habenula — a part of the brain that's activated by bad experiences — on self-control and drinking patterns.
In the controlled study, scientists inactivated the lateral habenula regions of half of their rat subjects (using an electric shock), then gave all of the rodents access to an alcohol solution on an intermittent basis over six weeks. They found that, over time, the rats with inactivated lateral habenulae not only drank more rapidly but also more heavily than the rats in the control group. Despite the unpleasant physical effects they experienced as they began drinking more heavily, these rats continued to consume more and more alcohol, while the control group learned from their overindulgent experiences and curtailed their behaviors. This suggests that inactivating the lateral habenulae interfered with the normal responses that occur after overconsumption.
This area of the brain might regulate how badly a person perceives the physical consequences of drinking, so inactivating it could prevent your body from feeling the averse effects of overindulging. Or, it might impair learning — so it could be that the rats were less able to learn from the negative outcomes of their drinking. Of course, further studies are definitely needed to get a better picture of how this mechanism works. But, the fact that we may have found the part of the brain that prevents us from going overboard could potentially play a huge role in the way we understand and treat not only alcoholism but also binge eating and drug abuse. (ScienceDaily)