“People with a loved one struggling with alcoholism often want to know two things: How do they develop this problem? And what can be done to help?”
~ Professor Marco Leyton, PhD, Montréal Neurological Institute, McGill University
According to the findings of a 2013 study at McGill University, the reason why some people become addicted to alcohol and other people do not maybe because of how each person’s brain initiates a dopamine response to alcohol.
Individuals who are at greater risk for addiction have a unique brain chemistry that will release a greater-than-normal quantity of dopamine in those neural pathways associated with pleasure and reward when exposed to alcohol. Dopamine transmission resulting from an activity – in this case, drinking – enhances that activity’s “attractiveness”.
“There is accumulating evidence that there are multiple pathways to alcoholism, each associated with a distinct set of personality traits and neurobiological features. Our study suggests that a tendency to experience a large dopamine response when drinking alcohol might contribute to one (or more) of these pathways,” said Professor Leyton, the author of the study.
“Although preliminary, the results are compelling. A much larger body of research has identified the role for dopamine in reward-seeking behaviors in general.”
Participants in the study were each given two brain scans, first, after consuming fruit juice, and another, after drinking three alcoholic drinks within the span of 15 minutes.
Individuals who were previously identified as having an elevated risk for addiction based upon their personality traits and their lower “intoxication response” to alcohol demonstrated significantly heightened responses in dopamine production after consuming the alcohol.
Those participants with large dopamine responses would feel an increased pleasure due to the alcohol that would increase the chances that they would attempt to drink more – a second drink, a third drink, and so on. The dopamine response induced by the alcohol makes subsequent drinks more desirable.
Conversely, study participants with minimal dopamine responses would instead fully feel alcohol’s sedative qualities. Because a feeling of sedation is less pleasurable, those individuals were far less likely to want more alcohol.
In response to the two things that people with loved ones with alcoholism want to know, Professor Leyton had this to say, “Our study helps us answer the first question by furthering our understanding of the causes of addictions. This is an important step toward developing treatments and preventing the disorder and others.”