Research on Brain Chemicals May Lead to Treatment of Alcoholism

Alcohol-related problems cost society in economic terms approximately $185 billion a year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The catastrophic costs in human terms cannot be determined. Addiction to alcohol results in human tragedy not only to the individual but also for families who love and support those caught in this grim illness.

Joanna Peris, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of pharmacodynamics in the College of Pharmacy, is conducting basic research that looks at the changes in neurochemistry in the brains of rats choosing to drink alcohol. This research may discover what chemicals cause the cravings for alcohol and lead to a breakthrough in how to control the urge to drink too much.

“My research will help us understand what goes on in the brain during excessive drinking,” Peris said. “This may lead us to come up with a therapy.”

The research study has examined the importance of glutamate, an amino acid found in the nervous system that is associated with learning and memory. Peris stated that this amino acid is not directly affected by alcohol. However, Peris explained that her research has shown that after the animals consume large amounts of alcohol and the symptoms of inebriation wear off, the glutamate levels in the brain rise. The glutamate levels rise when the alcohol is no longer present, and the brain is craving the pleasure that comes with drinking alcohol. It is believed that abnormal amounts of glutamate may be responsible for cell death, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Peris said her study is comparing the animals’ progress from responsible drinking to excessive drinking in order to measure the increase in glutamate levels and dopamine. Peris takes these measurements in the nucleus accumbens of the brain, which is known as “the pleasure part.”

The nucleus accumbens is a collection of neurons, which plays an important role in reward, pleasure, and

addiction. It is capable of reinforcing drug abuse. Peris said she believes one of the most significant findings of her research on alcohol addiction is that the changes in the rat’s brain during alcohol cravings can be measured every ten seconds, whereas most labs can only measure a change every ten minutes. This allows for a more accurate reading of the continuous changes that appear in the brains of rats.

“Rats are important to this study because they mimic the same craving behavior as humans,” Neil Rowland, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology said. Rowland said that alcohol is a drug that will cause cravings in humans. If the craving becomes very strong, a person could consume too much alcohol at one time and start to face an addiction.

As therapies are being created and tested for alcoholism around the world, Peris said she hopes that her research will help find new and better treatment for alcoholism.

Dr. William Millard, Executive Associate Dean in the College of Pharmacy, stated that Peris’s research program is vital to the overall understanding of alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system.

“If she can monitor and document clear changes in neurotransmitter levels in the brain then her work could ultimately help researchers find a potential treatment for this expensive and deadly addictive habit,” Millard said.