Do Brain Changes Contribute to Alcoholism?
New research from the University of Eastern Finland reveals that the brain tissue of alcoholism sufferers show a wider variety of changes when compared to a control group. That is, all alcoholic brains may have shared characteristics. Some are specific to Type 1 (anxiety-prone) alcoholics, while others are specific to Type 2 (impulsive) alcoholics.
Post-mortem tissue from both alcoholic and non-alcoholic brains were analyzed, and subsequently divided into 2 groups based on C. Robert Cloninger’s typology. According to Cloninger, alcoholics fall into one of two categories: Type 1 alcoholics tend to have anxiety, and develop dependence later in life. Type 2 alcoholics develop dependence early in life and also have antisocial and impulsive characteristics.
In all honestly, however, Cloninger’s typology has been highly criticized. At least one study revealed that these types could account for only 18% of a diagnosed alcohol-dependent sample of persons.
Olli Kärkkäinen, MSc (Pharm):
“From the viewpoint of the study setting, this division was made in order to highlight the wide spectrum of people suffering from alcohol dependence.. The reality, of course, is far more diverse, and not every alcoholic fits into one of these categories.”
Increased levels of the steroid hormone DHEA were among of the brain changes common to all alcoholics. This hormone affects the central nervous system (CNS). Tolerance to alcohol may, for the most part, be accounted for by this increase. Tolerance develops after long-term use, and reduces the pleasurable feelings that alcohol once produced.
Also discovered were decreased levels of serotonin transporters in two areas of the brain responsible for feelings and social cognitive processes. It is possible that this discovery is associated with the social anxiety behavior witnessed in some alcohol dependent persons.
Type 1 alcoholics revealed changes in in the endocannabinoid system, which manages responses to stress. DHEA levels were increased in the amygdala, which may be related to the fact that Type 1 alcoholics are more prone to anxiety.
Type 2 alcoholics were shown to have increased levels of AMPA receptors in the anterior cortex. These receptors participate in the learning and regulation of behavior – which may be related to the impusivity seen in this type of alcoholic.
This information helps to increase understanding of the brain changes which (a) make people inclined toward alcohol dependence and (b) are caused by long-term alcohol use. In the future, these findings may be useful in the development of new drug therapies for alcohol dependence.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A, Psychology
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