Alcohol Dependence: The Endorphin Factor

Dependent on Alcohol

For my money, the more we know about that which ails us, the sooner we can expect measurable and lasting relief. And so it is with alcohol dependence. Let’s chat endorphins.

It’s not unusual for someone enduring depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder to abuse, and become dependent upon, alcohol.

It’s that grand collision of genetics and seeking comfort for relentless symptoms that can bring one to their knees. Hey, look no further than the writer. He just passed the 27 year sobriety mark.

Okay, so no one questions the “comfort” factor involved here. But asking the “Why’s?” of it all is what leads to answers – and lasting solutions.

Alcohol Dependence & Endorphins: A New Study

Researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco have completed some very telling work. It appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Science Translational Medicine.

Alcohol Addiction Research

The big scoop is the discovery that consumption of alcohol leads to the release of endorphins in areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward.

Specifically, we’re talking the nucleus accumbens (left in red) and the orbitofrontal cortex (right in green).

Oh, by the way, this is the first time this has been observed in humans.

What Are Endorphins?

We’ve discussed endorphins several times here on chipur, but how ’bout once more?

Produced by the brain’s pituitary gland and hypothalamus, endorphins are endogenous (internal) opioid peptides that actually function as neurotransmitters. Their feel-good and pain relieving action resembles that of the opiates (morphine, codeine, etc.).

The production of endorphins can be generated by exercise, pain, the sensation of love, orgasm, and even consumption of spicy foods.

Endorphins & Alcohol Ingestion

Back to the study. In all of the participants, the ingestion of alcohol generated an endorphin release. And when endorphin release ramped-up in the nucleus accumbens, feelings of pleasure were enhanced.

But there’s more.  Increased endorphin release in the orbitofrontal cortex resulted in more intense feelings of intoxication in participants who were heavy drinkers. And that’s significant because such wasn’t the case with the control group.

Sooo, it seems the brains of heavy drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant. And that may be a huge tip-off as to the cause of “problem drinking.”

Yes, the cranked-up reward might make it much more difficult to throw the bottle aside.

You may say, “Well, duh!” But now we’re dealing with scientific fact. And that goes a whole lot farther than supposition.

The Implications?

Well, like I said in the intro, coming to understand how something works pours the foundation for relief. And discovering the very locations in the brain where endorphins are released upon alcohol consumption has a target for future intervention painted all over it.

See, the researchers observed that endorphins generated in response to drinking bind to a specific type of opioid receptor – the Mu receptor.

And since the actual opioid receptor involved in all the hub-bub has been identified, medications can now be designed that will far exceed the efficacy of, say, naltrexone.

And it isn’t that naltrexone doesn’t reduce drinking – it does. But its overall efficacy is poor due to the fact that some people simply stop taking it because they don’t like the way it makes them feel.

Something better lurking about? Well, now the possibility exists.

The Wrap

It’s important to chat research such as this here on chipur. Even if its practical and effective end-result hasn’t arrived as yet, it’s at least hopeful that the foundational work and learning are happening.

Knowledge is power, ya’ just can’t say it enough.

featured image credit nucleus accumbens orbitofrontal cortex

I’d like you to read more chipur articles on the biology of what mood and anxiety disorder sufferers endure. If you’d like to, just click here.