Feel like you need a drink? Neurons may decide when you say when

hand pours liquid from shaker into cocktail glass

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Scientists have pinpointed a population of neurons in the brain that influences whether one drink leads to two, which could ultimately lead to a cure for alcoholism and other addictions.

A study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, finds that alcohol consumption alters the structure and function of neurons in the dorsomedial striatum, which guides goal-driven behaviors. The findings could lead to the creation of a drug to combat alcoholism.

The paper’s lead author is Jun Wang, an assistant professor of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics at the Texas A&M Health Science Center’s College of Medicine.

Using an animal model, the researchers determined that alcohol actually changes the physical structure of medium spiny neurons, the main type of cell in the striatum. These neurons can be thought of like a tree, with many branches, and many small protrusions, or spines, coming off of them. They each have one of two types of dopamine receptors, D1 or D2, and so can be thought of as either D1 or D2 neurons. D1 neurons are informally called part of a “go” pathway in the brain, while D2 neurons are in the “no-go” pathway. In other words, when D2 neurons are activated, they discourage action — telling you to wait, to stop, to do nothing.

Although it is well known that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in addiction, this study goes further, showing that the dopamine D1 receptor also plays an important role in addiction. The team found that periodic consumption of large amounts of alcohol acts on D1 neurons, making them much more excitable, which means that they activate with less stimulation.

“If these neurons are excited, you will want to drink alcohol,” Wang said. “You’ll have a craving.”

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