Key region of the brain in controlling binge drinking discovered

(Image via Wikimedia commons)

By Shannon Budden

A team of scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina have identified a new way of tackling binge drinking, according to a study published earlier this year.

The research, led by Howard Becker PhD, director of the Charleston Alcohol research centre, showed that deactivating a stress-signalling system in a brain area responsible for motivation and behaviour influenced by emotion can decrease the urge to binge drink.

This area of the brain is a network of structures called the extended amygdala. According to the team it is highly responsive to stress and rich in a type of brain receptors called kappa opioid receptors.

Unlike other opioid receptors, which produce pleasurable effects for drug and alcohol abuse, the kappa opioid receptors are involved in the negative effects of withdrawal such as nausea and headaches.

When this opioid system is switched off, the tendency to binge drink decreases. This suggests that the kappa opioid system plays an important role in withdrawal as well as in influencing binging behaviour itself.

A drug which blocks the kappa opioid receptors was introduced into mice using a binge-drinking mouse model. The mice were allowed to drink without intervention for four hours a night and the team measured how much alcohol they voluntarily consumed with and without the drug.

They found that the mice drank enough to achieve blood alcohol levels in line with a binge episode whilst the receptors were activated, but this was reduced to a moderate level – the equivalent of a glass of wine rather than a bottle – when the drug inactivated the receptors.

The team say they don’t yet know why stopping these negative effects also decreases binge drinking, but it is known that the receptors are involved in producing the negative emotional state which encourages compulsive drinking in those with alcohol use disorders.

However, the finding holds promise for a therapy which may curb the desire to drink excessively that will be used in people suffering with alcohol addiction, or those who may be at risk of addiction through repeated binge drinking.

According to Alcohol Change UK, 27% of people who consume alcohol in the UK report binge drinking, with alcohol misuse the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year olds.

People who consistently binge drink are at increased risk of developing an alcohol-related disorder and worryingly, binge drinking is one of the most common patterns of alcohol consumption. This research is hoped to help people of all ages tackle the over-consumption of alcohol. 

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