13 January 2012
American researchers have used PET (positron emission tomography) scans of the brain to observe for the first time the way drinking alcohol leads to the release of endorphins, so-called feel-good chemicals, in the brain. The study also highlighted differences in the reward process between heavy drinkers and control subjects who weren't heavy drinkers.
The study, by researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, marked the first time endorphin release in response to alcohol consumption had been directly observed in humans.
Lead author and Gallo Center clinical project director Professor Jennifer Mitchell (PhD) said the research provided the first direct evidence of how alcohol made people “feel good”.
Researchers used PET imaging to observe the immediate effects of alcohol in the brains of 13 heavy drinkers and 12 matched control subjects who were not heavy drinkers, and found alcohol intake led to a release of endorphins in all subjects.
And, in all of the subjects, the more endorphins released in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, the greater the feelings of pleasure reported by each drinker.
The study also showed the more endorphins released in another part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, the greater the feelings of intoxication in the heavy drinkers, but not in the control subjects.
“This indicates that the brains of heavy or problem drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant, and may be a clue to how problem drinking develops in the first place,” Professor Mitchell said.
Researchers said the discovery of the precise locations in the brain where endorphins were released provided possible targets for the development of more effective drugs for the treatment of alcohol abuse.
Science Translational Medicine, 2012; 4(116): 116ra6
Last Reviewed: 13 January 2012