As a college student I often hear stories from friends and classmates that involve lots and lots of alcohol. Not one to drink, I didn’t really know much about alcohol and its effects, other than what kids are told in grade school. After doing some searching I found out that, not only was there a lot of information known, but that there was still a lot of research being done on the topic.
Some interesting statistics that I found include:
– Alcoholism is one of, if not the, most prominent neuro psychiatric disorders in society today.
– In 2010 the number of alcohol-induced deaths, excluding accidents and homicides, was 25,692.
– Around 35% of abuse victims report that offenders are under the influence of alcohol.
– Alcohol use is also associated with 2 out of 3 incidents of intimate partner violence.
– Alcohol is often a major factor in cases of child abuse and neglect and 10% of children in the US live with a parent that abuses alcohol
Statistics like these make me wonder why people drink alcohol. What is it about alcohol that leads us to consume it? Why do some people become dependent on it? It turns out that alcohol, like other drugs that humans tend to use and abuse, actually causes changes to our brains when it is used frequently enough and in large quantities.
The neurological pathway that leads to alcohol addiction is called the Reward or Pleasure pathway. This pathway involves multiple regions of the brain including the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens, and parts of the prefrontal cortex. Unlike other drugs alcohol does not directly affect the dopamine pathway, which is an integral part of the reward pathway. Instead it acts on GABAA receptors located on interneurons in the VTA. Ethanol binds to the GABAA receptors and cause GABAA gated chloride channels to open, and stay open longer than normal. This leads to the neurons becoming excitatory, and their interaction with the reward pathway causes an increase in dopaminergic activity in the VTA. The dopamine from the VTA interacts with the nucleus accumbens, activating the reward system there as well.
Over time the human brain can become used to this overabundance of dopamine and become dependent on alcohol activating the reward pathway. This leads to dependency on alcohol meaning that the person is now addicted to it. Because the brain has been changed by alcohol if its use is discontinued there can be some very nasty side effects. These side effects are called withdrawal symptoms and they can start as soon as two hours after an addicts last drink. They can be extremely severe. So severe in fact that, if not treated, they can lead to death.
There are two categories of withdrawal symptoms, psychological and physiological. Anxiety and confusion are two of the more mild psychological side effects while hallucinations fall on the more extreme end of the spectrum. Physiological symptoms include shaking, sweating, nausea, and vomiting. They can also include more serious symptoms like high fever, irregular heartbeat, and even seizures, all of which require immediate medical attention. The avoidance of these withdrawal symptoms are a reason that, along with the modification of the brain, keep people dependent on alcohol.
Over all I learned a lot about alcohol use and abuse. Some of what I learned was quite scary and all of it definitely makes me think twice about heading out to have a drink with friends.
More information can be found:
Boileau I., Assaad J.M., Pihl R.O., Benkelfat C., Leyton M., Diksic M., Tremblay R.E., Dagher A. Alcohol promotes dopamine release in the human nucleus accumbens. Synapse. 49(2003):226-31
Pestell, Katharine. “Alcohol Addiction.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 22.9 (2001): 448. Print.
Lishman, W. A. “Alcohol and the Brain.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 156.5 (1990): 635-44. Print.
Vengeliene, V., A. Bilbao, A. Molander, and R. Spanagel. “Neuropharmacology of Alcohol Addiction.” British Journal of Pharmacology 154.2 (2008): 299-315. Print.

Click to access dopamine.pdf

4 thoughts on “Alcohol

  1. This post is interesting because it explores the chemical and neurotransmitter interactions associated with alcohol consumption and addiction. As the author references, alcohol use on college campuses (including Colby) is prevalent, as are alcohol-related incidents both on and off of college campuses. While I think that the post does succeed in providing interesting explanatory information on the neural processes associated with alcoholism, I’m not sure that I agree with the author’s vague connections to recreational college use. While I understand the reference to college drinking as a way to bring relevancy to the topic, I think there are many other underlying psychological factors that contribute to overuse, and eventual addiction, to alcohol. The author’s conclusion that, “all of it definitely makes me think twice about heading out to have a drink with friends,” is somewhat unfounded by the provided information, as recreational alcohol use and alcohol addiction are quite separate concepts.


  2. Although I understand Kaitlin’s point about alcohol addiction and college drinking being separate concepts, there are systems put in place on this campus to help those possibly facing addiction. I am a member of the Alcohol Education, Awareness, and Training Advisory Group (AEATAG), a little known committee that meets every other week to discuss the drinking culture on the Colby campus. One of the leaders of the committee, Katie Sawyer, is the Coordinator of Alcohol and Drug Programs, and Health Promotion. Part of her job is to give information to students about healthy alcohol use, she also meets with students who are struggling with alcohol dependence and helps them find tools to better themselves. One of our most recent poster designs includes questions students can ask themselves to check if their drinking may be out of hand.
    There may only be a small population of students who are at risk for alcohol addiction, but it does happen. One of the goals of the committee is to present students with scientific facts about drinking, so they can make healthy choices and avoid any dependence from forming.


  3. I believe that alcohol is a very fascinating topic and something that is widely explored especially in a college setting. Kaitlin’s post explores a lot about how one’s brain reacts to alcohol and how it can lead into addiction. I think it would be interesting to see how binge drinking specifically effects the brain. Many adults establish alcoholism later in life and I wonder if the drinking that they did in college, most of the time binge drinking, effects their likelihood to establish alcoholism. In most competitive college settings, it is not that students drink every night, especially here at Colby. It is my understanding that students drink heavily 1-2 nights a week. It would be interesting to explore the effects of binge drinking on a brain vs. the effects of constant alcohol consumption. The brain gets so used to the reward pathway being activated through alcohol that it now relies on alcohol in order for the process to begin. Most college students are not alcoholics so therefore I do not think that their Reward Pathway would alter in this way – but how would it change?


  4. I find this topic especially relevant, seeing that as college students, every weekend we are faced with all types stimuli, one of which is alcohol. The habits students fall into of drinking every weekend is widely accepted, and it seems that this is the ‘norm’, but how does this binge drinking affect us in the long run? It seems like neural plasticity is one of the problems here, because our brains literally change, and adapt within the reward system. Eventually resulting in the amygdala playing a role. In response to the excessive alcohol consumption, this part of the brain produces negative emotions in an attempt to slow the consumption; which of course does not hinder the consumption of alcohol, it rather leads to more drinking. It’s a nasty cycle that seems almost impossible to break.


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