People struggling with alcoholism can trace their addiction to a population of neurons in the brain that, when stimulated, influence whether one drink leads to two.
A new study from scientists at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and the University of California San Francisco suggests suppressing these neurons could lead to a treatment for alcohol addiction.
When you drink a lot of alcohol, you’re changing the structure of those neurons. Texas A&M Professor Jun Wang, the lead author of this research, says you can think of the cell like a tree.
"We found that alcohol drinking causes more branches and more leaves," Dr. Wang says.
Longer branches, too. All these changes in the structure of these particular spiny neurons means they’re more excitable.
"We can prove, yes, those increased structure changes actually contribute or drive humans to drink more," Wang says. "If we prevent or inhibit this change, alcohol consumption is actually decreased."
In other words, when these neurons are activated, they compel you to take an action that leads to rewarding behavior. In the case of an alcoholic, that means drinking more. These are neurons with D1 dopamine receptors, which encourage action.
Wang says in the future, treatment could inhibit these neurons so that cravings for alcohol are reduced. The research was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.