By: Josh Mattocks
One drink, two drinks, five drinks, and then you’re hooked. Well, it’s safe to say it won’t happen just like that, but research is showing that alcoholism can afflict just about anyone. Alcohol is a practically ubiquitous aspect of college life and, beyond that, is a cornerstone of mainstream American culture. Many find it fun to drink, socialize, and drink some more. However, despite the euphoria one gains with alcohol, as maturing individuals, a teenaged or young adult brain may be at higher risk of change—for better or for worse.
This is due to the development that occurs rapidly during adolescence and slows during early adulthood (early twenties). This leaves an individual more open to the consequences of alcohol misuse, more specifically what is known as binge drinking. Binge drinking, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, NIAAA, occurs when someone drinks enough alcohol within a two-hour period to achieve a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08%. This translates to five drinks for an average male and four drinks for an average female based on body composition. Research has begun to explore molecules of the brain called neuropeptides, brain communication components, to figure out their effect on the development of alcoholism. It has been found that with regular binge drinking, one’s chances to become addicted to alcohol are increased.
Researchers in the lab of Todd E. Thiele, Ph.D. at UNC Chapel Hill have been looking into what exactly happens in the brain as someone drinks alcohol. In essence, they are examining what changes occur as one drinks large quantities of alcohol over time. Dr. Thiele, a professor of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Chapel Hill, states that there is a genetic component when it comes to addiction, but environmental factors also play a role.
“Your brain might be particularly vulnerable to alcohol exposure when you’re young.” states Dr. Thiele.
Besides genetics, early life experiences with alcohol may increase your chances of alcohol dependence because the brain more readily accepts changes and adaptations during adolescence. Dr. Thiele’s lab is in a pre-clinical setting and uses mice to conduct research. He chooses mice that are genetically inclined to enjoy drinking alcohol, which facilitates how the study is conducted. Dr. Thiele’s current area of interest is in what we call neuropeptides, molecules in the brain that allow brain cells to communicate. He studies these neuropeptides and their activity during the early transition to alcohol dependence through close examination of a part of the brain called the extended amygdala.
“This is the part of the brain that is critical for modulating emotional responses, depression, and anxiety for example.”, explains Dr. Thiele. “People who are alcohol dependent are more likely to be depressed and anxious.”
There is an explanation for this correlation, however, as Dr. Thiele’s lab examines the long-lasting changes during what is known as the early transition stage of alcohol addiction. There are two neuropeptides of interest, the first being neuropeptide Y, or NPY. NPY naturally occurs in the brain and acts as a buffer against anxiety and depression. In other words, if you have plenty of NPY, it is less likely that you are regularly anxious or depressed. In turns out, however, that NPY expression goes down in the brain with increased alcohol use. On the other hand, the second neuropeptide of interest acts almost opposite in function to NPY. This neuropeptide is known as corticotropin releasing factor, or CRF. CRF stimulates the effects of anxiety and depression and its expression goes up in the brain with increased alcohol use. In essence, with repeated alcohol consumption, the components of your brain that help protect against anxiety and depression begin to weaken and the components that encourage anxiety and depression are strengthened.
It is common belief that alcohol helps to decrease anxiety and drown the worries away, a concept potentially explained by Dr. Thiele’s lab. “We think that, in the beginning, people that drink alcohol before they’re dependent drink because it’s rewarding. It produces euphoria.”, states Dr. Thiele. “What people do later on when they’re alcoholics is to drink alcohol to keep away these negative feelings that are associated with alcohol dependence. They self-medicate with alcohol in an attempt to prevent the negative feelings that accompany alcohol dependence.”
Dr. Thiele’s lab does not focus on the neurological effects of established alcohol dependence; rather their research is mainly conducted on what changes occur as someone transitions to alcohol dependency. If one were to drink one or two drinks on occasion, it is likely that the changes in the brain would be transient or indifferent. However, if repeated drinking occurs, especially binge drinking, the changes in the brain may become more robust or long-lasting.
It is the goal of Dr. Thiele and his lab to develop strategies to prevent alcohol dependence. Eventually, there may be pharmaceutical approaches available that function by giving back synthetic NPY to the brain to restore the natural buffer against anxiety and depression and reduce the urge to drink alcohol.
“If we know what changes start to occur as one transitions to alcoholism maybe we can develop techniques or even pharmaceutical therapies that might prevent individuals from drinking too much before they actually become full-fledged alcoholics.”