Alcohol addiction alters the mind. Here's why overusers need medical help
Brain scans of alcohol-dependent mice showed that on alcohol deprivation, there was reduced modularity and a spike in overall brain activity.
Alcohol addiction changes the overall brain function, making it harder for overusers to quit. The reason: when people addicted to alcohol try to quit, their brain activity spikes and they experience cognitive impairment and intense cravings - scientists attribute this to reduced brain modularity.
The brain modularity theory suggests that different parts of the brain serve different purposes. Reduced modularity can muddle the brain, leading to cognitive impairment, emotional issues and intense cravings for addictive substances.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), US, used advanced brain scans to arrive at these findings as well as explain a new “pathway” for how these changes happen in the brain. They published their findings on 14 January, in the American peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
Changes in the brain
To be sure, we have known for a while that parts of the brain — such as the amygdala (the centre of emotions such as fear) and the prefrontal cortex — are involved in forming an addiction. But this study also revealed previously unknown parts of the brain that are involved in addiction.
The study used advanced brain imaging technologies that could examine changes at the single-cell level. Brain scans of alcohol-dependent mice showed that on alcohol deprivation, there was reduced modularity and a spike in overall brain activity. These changes were not present in nondrinker or casual drinker mice.
In fact, the researchers wrote, the changes in the brain structure in alcohol-dependent mice were comparable to mice who were suffering from serious cognitive impairment as a result of Alzheimer’s, a traumatic head injury or a seizure disorder.
The findings underline the understanding of the scientific community that alcohol addiction doesn’t just occur because of psychological or lifestyle choices. It appears that the brains of those addicted to alcohol, as opposed to those of casual drinkers or non-drinkers, are altered profoundly and it is extremely difficult for them to abstain.
The researchers also commented that while focusing on certain sections of the brain remains important, the bigger picture of how the whole structure is altered cannot be overlooked. It is not yet known if reduced modularity is irreversible; the study did not look into this component. It also raises the question of exactly when addiction sets in and becomes a problem.
Unravelling this part of the puzzle will help plan abstinence programmes and medical interventions in the future. Additionally, the engagement of previously unrecognized parts of the brain will encourage further research as well.
It is not yet possible to conduct these imaging scans on humans, given the complexity and size of our brains. However, these findings are still valuable and the researchers hope to extend investigations to dependence involving other drugs such as cocaine, nicotine and methamphetamines.
For more on this topic, please read our article on Alcoholism.
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