The effects of alcohol on the brain and addiction

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Alcohol affects nerve cells in the brain, squashing them and slowing down the transmission of impulses along them. The connections between nerves are affected, and nerves stop talking to one another, in effect. Alcohol depresses the activity of nerves by interfering with receptors for a substance called GABA and by blocking receptors for another substance, glutamate.

It seems that alcohol activates the cells in the brain that produce a neuro-transmitter called dopamine. It has been suggested that this interacts with alcohol to produce morphine-like chemicals (morphine is related to heroin and is addictive). Those who become addicted to alcohol have more dopamine receptors in their brains than average and this seems to be a genetically determined defect. The dopamine receptors seem to be an important factor in addiction.

Studies in rats have shown that another substance in the brain, neuropeptide Y, may be important, for when levels are low the rats drink more alcohol.

exposure to alcohol leads to an increase in the amount of the enzyme, with the result that the alcohol is broken down more rapidly and removed. The heavy drinker thus becomes tolerant to the pleasurable effects of alcohol while the adverse metabolic effects are not diminished.

Because alcoholics break down the alcohol more quickly than other people, they may appear to be sober even when they have had several drinks (that is, until they sustain liver damage, when they may be more affected than the average person). Can alcoholism be treated? Apart from simple abstinence and drug treatment to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms, there is a drug, antabuse, which helps alcoholics to stop drinking by making the effects of the alcohol unpleasant.

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