Many people who drink are able to do so moderately without a problem. There are also some people who may exceed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2010 Dietary Guidelines' recommended levels of no more then one drink a day for women, two for men, but do not have the disease of alcoholism.
This is because they may be able to realize the harm they are doing, and cut back responsibly. Alcoholism goes beyond a free choice to drink heavily, but instead turns alcohol into an uncontrollable obsession.
An alcoholic's dependence and craving becomes so strong that he or she feels powerless and unable to stop or responsibly limit drinking, even after it causes physical, psychological, or interpersonal harm. While, science has yet to fully understand why some people appear to be more susceptible to alcohol addiction then others, recent research appears to have reveled new information about how a brain can be predisposed to impulsive problem drinking.
This information also offers exciting new possibilities about how we can treat this harmful and debilitating disease.
The found protein
Along with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco's Department of Neurology, Dr. Dorit Ron discovered a key protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF that makes a huge difference in whether a test subject will be able to control drinking to moderate levels. In Dr. Ron's tests, mice that had high levels of BDNF in their brains consumed alcohol at low levels, while those without the protein were more likely to drink uncontrollably, demonstrating patterns of addiction.
A protein is a biological molecule that interacts with a part of your body and has an impact on its function. One very important class of proteins are called neurotransmitters, and these interact with the brain to affect its functioning.
Emotions and thought processes, feelings of pleasure and of pain are all affected by the ways these neurotransmitters interact with the brain's pathways. Neurotransmitters can have a huge impact on a person's thoughts and feelings, and thus affect behavior, particularly when they get in the medial prefrontal cortex, the main part of the brain involved in decision-making.
Higher levels of BDNF appear to prevent excessive drinking, by binding to neurons (brain cells) in the prefrontal cortex causing people to stop drinking before it becomes harmful and excessive. Thus, controlling drinking is not merely a case of willpower, but is dramatically affected by our biology.
Possibilities for treatment
Dr. Dorit Ron's research further showed that BDNF levels are affected by a micro-RNA miR-30a-5p, which lowers the levels of BDNF being brought into the brain. Thus, as the researchers injected a miR-30a-5p inhibitor, levels of BDNF rose, and drinking levels decreased.
This suggests some exciting possibilities for new medications that may in the future, become an important supportive piece of a holistic treatment plan for addiction recovery.
While there are a few traditional medications that can lessen someone's feelings of dependence on alcohol, most of them do so by dampening the brain's reward system. Alcohol produces high levels of neurotransmitters that produce pleasurable feelings, and addictions develop as the brain becomes adapted and unable to function without high levels of activity in the pleasure center.
Alcohol abuse medications deal with this issue by lessening the amount of pleasure the brain can receive, leading to a decreased ability to feel pleasurable feelings. This can have a very de-incentivizing affect, as people stop taking their medication in an effort to feel pleasure again.
That is why Dr. Ron's research is so exciting. By elevating BDNF and decreasing the level of miR-30a-5p in the brain, it may be possible to decrease someone's drive towards excessive alcohol consumption, without disturbing brain's pleasure center as a whole. This in turn frees people up to discover new ways to enjoy life and feel satisfied as they continue on the road to recovery.