After a difficult day at work or a busy week taking care of the family, many people de-stress by sipping a glass of wine or going to the bars with friends for a round of beers. But why does alcohol have this type of relaxing effect on our bodies? Surprisingly, despite all the research surrounding alcoholism and its treatment, scientists are only now beginning to understand how drinking affects the brain at a cellular level.
A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco that was published in Science Translational Medicine is one of the first to explain why alcohol brings us pleasure. It turns out that drinking causes the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are chemicals naturally found in the human body that have a powerful “feel good” effect. These are the chemicals responsible for the experience of a “runner’s high” and, from a molecular level, that high is similar to that provided by opioid drugs such as morphine. For decades, researchers have theorized through animal studies that alcohol was related to an endorphin response but until now have not been able to observe it.
The researchers first created a map of all the opioid receptors in the brain. To do this, 13 heavy drinkers and 12 average drinkers were injected with naltrexone, a drug that is drawn to opioid receptors in the brain. The naltrexone had radioactive tags placed on it and a map was generated using PET scan technology when the naltrexone bound to the opioid receptors in the brain.
From here, the researchers had the participants drink alcohol and then re-injected them with the drug. Naltrexone was not able to attach itself to as many opioid receptors, proving the alcohol had caused a release of active endorphins.
Each subject reported an increased experience of pleasure when endorphins were active in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. This region is a reward center of the brain, so it is primed to produce good feelings when stimulated. On the other hand, only heavy drinkers experienced elevated levels of pleasure when the orbitofrontal cortex was stimulated. This is evidence that individuals who drink to excess do so because they experience more pleasure from alcohol than the average person.
Do you think heavy drinkers are created because they experience a more pleasurable sensation from drinking? Or do you think this response in the brain develops as a tolerance to alcohol? Let us know your opinion below.