Some people associate alcohol abuse with poor personal choices. However, the reality is much more complex. The fact is that problems with alcohol stem from a number of factors such as social influences, environment, and genetics. For example, a person is more likely to develop problems with alcohol if they’re raised by parents who abuse alcohol.
Recent research indicates that genetics play even more of a role in alcohol abuse than previously thought. The American Society of Addiction Medicine now states that about half of a person’s propensity for addiction is determined by genetic factors. Of course, a person has no control over these factors.
We now understand that there are a large number of genes that contribute to a tendency towards alcohol abuse. Individuals who possess these genes are referred to as having a “genetic load” for addiction. The vast majority of these genes involve the structure and function of the brain, especially concerning neurotransmitters - chemicals that deliver signals among brain cells.
Alcohol abuse is a double-edged sword for the brain. The disease is often brought on by variations in the brain, but alcohol abuse also causes changes in the brain. For example, a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2014 found that alcoholics had lower levels of dopamine transmission in the brain’s prefrontal cortex compared to subjects without alcohol problems. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter, and the prefrontal cortex is crucial to attention, impulse control, and risk/reward behavior. Yet, the cause and effect of this finding is not clear. Are the dopamine levels altered because of alcohol abuse, or is alcohol abuse the cause of the lowered amounts of dopamine? We don’t yet know.
Another example of brain structure being linked with alcohol abuse is seen in research published in 2014 in the journal PNAS. Researchers discovered that mice without a specific potassium channel were more prone to binge drink alcohol. The scientists suggested that these mice may somehow feel more pleasure from alcohol than their counterparts with the potassium channel.
New Treatments on the Horizon
As we come to understand more about the biology of alcohol problems, science is also discovering new potential treatments. Scientists have performed experiments showing that alcohol dependence can be reversed in rats by targeting certain neural networks. A 2016 paper in the Journal of Neuroscience related that both alcohol-dependent and binge drinking rats drank less after this network was inactivated. This study could lead to some promising results for humans in the future.
Finally, a clinical trial demonstrated that alcohol-dependent patients treated with baclofen, an anti-spasmodic drug typically used for cerebral palsy, drank less than a control group who received no baclofen. Again, this discovery could lead to a new treatment avenue for alcohol abuse. However, it should be noted that all the patients in the trial received psychosocial support, which experts agree is a vital part of any alcohol-management effort.