Those people who have wondered why it is fun to drink socially now have their answer: drinking alcohol causes endorphins to be released into the brain. When this endorphin rush occurs, drinkers experience feelings of pleasure and reward, according to a recent study.
The study, conducted at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), also delved into the differences between the endorphin rush in non-alcoholics and in alcoholics, which shed even more light on how endorphins play a part in alcohol addiction.
Although similar endorphin studies have been completed on animals in the past, this UCSF study is the first to be completed on humans, allowing us an inside look into humans and alcohol addiction. Past speculation about animal studies lead researchers to believe that there is a link between alcohol and feelings of pleasure, but now, based on this study, scientists can pinpoint the exact location.
Now, knowing the exact location of the endorphin release, scientists believe that it is possible to develop new drugs that can help combat alcohol addiction, which will make alcohol treatment centers even more effective overall.
To complete the study, researchers found 25 subjects: 13 heavy drinkers and 12 control subjects. The control group subjects were chosen for their overall match to the heavy drinkers.
Once the subjects were found, researchers injected an opiate-like drug, carfentanil, into the subjects. This drug binds to opioid receptors in the brain. Since endorphins produce an opiate-like effect in the brain, injecting carfentanil allowed the researchers to identify the areas which endorphins “lit up” on a PET scan once alcohol was introduced to the subjects.
The findings were remarkable. In both the heavy drinkers and the control group, alcohol caused the release of endorphins to a portion of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. When the endorphins were released, each subject reported feelings of pleasure. Also, greater numbers of endorphins lead to greater feelings of pleasure in all subjects.
However, the heavy drinkers group also experienced an additional response that was not found in the non-drinkers group. When endorphins were released into the orbitofrontal cortex, the heavy drinkers felt more intoxicated. The non-drinkers did not feel more intoxicated upon the release.
This additional feeling of pleasure as related to the endorphin release into the orbitofrontal cortex may explain why heavy drinkers continue to drink so heavily: they have an additional pleasure center or an additional feeling of reward that may cause alcohol addiction.
Furthermore, the research revealed some very promising information about opioid receptors in the brain that may lead to better medication options at treatment centers. Currently, treatment centers like Vista Taos in New Mexico typically use one drug to assist alcoholics in recovery: naltrexone. This drug is effective because it blocks all opioid receptors in the brain, but it has some unwanted side effects. When all opioid receptors are blocked, alcoholics on the naltrexone drug reported feeling “strange” and most often discontinued using the naltrexone – which left them open once again to alcohol addiction problems.
The research, however, leads researchers to better understand exactly which type of opioid receptors is used in alcohol addiction: the Mu opioid receptor. Pinpointing this singular type of receptor will allow researchers to develop a drug that blocks only these Mu receptors and not every single receptor in the brain. The hope is that a new drug with limited blocking ability will be less likely to cause the same side effects that often forced alcoholics to stop taking naltrexone, making them more likely to be able to resist alcohol addiction.
Of course, drugs are not the only source of treatment available to fight alcohol addiction. Those addicted to alcohol can also find help at alcohol treatment centers. With proper counseling at a treatment center, an alcoholic can also battle the underlying emotional reasons for alcohol addiction. Oftentimes, a joint treatment of drug therapy and counseling can help alcoholics overcome their addiction.
As researchers move forward in developing a drug that blocks only the Mu opioid receptors, hope for an even more effective alcoholism treatment is on the horizon. Together, advancing research and the excellent existing treatment centers can partner for a change in the face of alcohol addiction.