The results of a new study, which have been published in Molecular Psychiatry, show that a portion of the brain’s reward system is blunted when a person becomes addicted to alcohol. This effect continues even after long periods of abstinence.
The researcher’s findings demonstrate that those living with an addiction to alcohol release fewer endorphins in their brain when compared to a control group. The new study found similar results to a previous study performed by the team, which looked at gambling addicts’ endorphin levels.
How are Endorphins Affected by Alcohol?
Endorphins are the body’s “feel good” chemical messengers. They are released when we engage in enjoyable activities, such as listening to music, eating chocolate or playing with a pet. Physical activity also causes the brain to release endorphins.
The researchers used Positron Emission Tomography (PET), a specialized type of scan that shows the chemical messengers’ movements. Their goal was to increase understanding of how the brain’s endorphins change with alcohol addiction.
Study Participants had History of Alcohol Abuse
Thirteen people with alcohol abuse issues, who weren’t drinking at the time of the study, underwent PET scans. One scan was taken before and one after receiving a small dose of the ADD medication dexamphetamine to stimulate their endorphin system. The control group for the study was 15 people who didn’t have a history of addiction.
The group with alcohol abuse issues released “significantly less endorphins” than the control group. The reduced level of endorphins didn’t change, even after long periods of time without drinking alcohol.
First Time Lower Endorphin Release Linked to Alcohol Addiction
This is the first time that lower endorphin release has been shown in people with alcohol addiction. The findings are similar to an earlier study conducted on participants with a history of gambling addiction, which suggests that low endorphin production is something common to those living with other addictions.
The study results didn’t indicate whether this dysfunction of the brain’s reward system is a result of the addiction or was present before the addiction took hold. The researchers are also unclear whether lower endorphins are present in people who are at higher risk for developing an addiction.
The House has approved new legislation written to give healthcare providers more options as they do their part to stem the opioid crisis. Currently more than 115 people are losing their lives to drug overdoses in the US every day.
The legislation passed easily with a vote of 396-14. It includes several opioid-related bills that lawmakers have decided to make a priority.
Drug Crisis Impacts Many Lives
Many of the lawmakers shared personal accounts of how opioid abuse has affected their family, friends and constituents when urging their colleagues to pass the bill. Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said that his press secretary, Erin Perrine, lost her brother, Eamon, to a drug overdose. The news of his death in 2016 was particularly tragic for the family since it happened shortly before Perrine’s wedding.
McCarthy stated, “Let that be a lesson to us all: There is no event so joyful, no place so safe, that it is untouched by the drug crisis.”
New Law Increases Aid to Medicare Patients
The new bill encourages states to increase treatment coverage for substance abuse through Medicaid. Former prisoners and youth in foster care are among the population groups specifically targeted for increased treatment coverage. To date, 30,000 Medicare patients have been diagnosed with opioid addiction.
The legislation also seeks to increase use of medications to treat opioid abuse. It would allow more healthcare workers to treat patients with medications to reduce overdose risks. Methadone clinics will be added to Medicare program offerings. The new bill adds incentives for physicians to order post-surgical injections, as opposed to prescribing opioids.
White House Supports House’s Effort to Pass Bills
The White House announced its support for the House’s effort, which has involved passing multiple bills on the opioid abuse issue. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called on the Senate to take the legislation up and “get these lifesaving bills to the president’s desk.” Sanders went on to say that the bills represent, “the most significant Congressional effort against a single drug crisis in United States history.”
Research has shown that drug addiction is a chronic disease affecting approximately 21.5 million people in the US. The exact causes are complicated, and at present it’s impossible to predict exactly what leads someone to become addicted to a drug. With repeated exposure to an addictive drug, changes occur in the brain that continue the cycle of addiction.
Addiction interferes with the reward processing circuits in the brain. A brain under the influence of an addictive drug receives a massive amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical that behaves like a messenger between brain cells. It helps to determine how we learn, what we eat, how we move and whether we become addicts. Dopamine also helps with motivation to repeat a particular action, such as doing something pleasurable again.
Drugs like heroin, cocaine and even nicotine cause the brain to release large amount of dopamine. When the brain gets too much of this neurotransmitter from drugs, the person with a substance abuse problem continues to look for a “high” from the drug. Other pleasurable experiences like eating an ice cream cone or watching a funny movie won’t be enough to give the brain the amount of good feeling it needs.
TMS Targets Brain’s Neural Circuits
For this reason, addiction is called a brain disease. Until now, researchers, haven’t been able to find treatments targeting the neural circuits. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina (Charleston) have discovered a treatment that targets them.
The researchers, who supervised by Colleen Hanlon, Ph.D., used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to dull the brain’s response to wanting to consume cocaine and alcohol in chronic users. This noninvasive brain stimulation technique was used in two groups of participants, and their reactions to receiving either a real treatment or a sham one. Their reactions were recorded, and the results showed “no significant interaction with region of interest [in the brain] for either experiment.”
The findings were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.
Video games are an enjoyable pastime for many people. They enjoy spending time testing their skills against other players or against the computer. The video games are sought out by users as a means to release tension.
Vanderbilt University Researcher Working on Virtual Reality Therapy
A researcher at the Vanderbilt University is using video games as part of an unusual therapy being used to help drug addicts get a firmer hold on reality. Noah Robinson is a graduate student who is leading a group with the University’s Hollon Research Group conducting a scientific study to quantify whether this therapy can help addicts. (There are already anecdotal accounts that it is helpful.)
The therapy works by immersing the addict in a virtual world made up of abstract shapes and swirls of color. It isn’t just some type of fantastic treat for the eyes, though. It also includes a layer of psychological principles. The idea of using the virtual reality (VR) therapy is to teach users the skills necessary to separate themselves from the negative emotions and cravings that provide the fuel required to feed an addiction.
The therapist appears in the virtual world as a cartoon avatar, and the addict can communicate with the therapist through the virtual reality headset during sessions. The two of them can “walk” into a separate room for a talk therapy session.
VR Tool for Trying Out New Skills in Recovery
This rehab tool also lets addicts “try out” the skills they are learning in therapy. For example, the virtual reality headset can allow a recovering alcoholic to virtually walk into a bar or a party and practice turning down a drink. Afterward, the recovering alcoholic and his therapist can discuss whether it felt easy or hard to say, “No” when offered alcohol and talk about strategies for handling a similar situation in the “real” world.
The advantage to using virtual reality therapy for clients in treatment for drug addiction is that the distraction of the technology separates them from their fears and anxieties. As a result, the messages from therapy are easier to absorb.