Alcoholism May Be Associated With Higher Dopamine Release At The Expectation Of A Drink, A New Study Says

A new study published in the scientific journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging suggests a family history of alcoholism affects dopamine release in the brain. According to the results, people whose families have a history of alcohol usage disorders (AUD) release more dopamine at the prospect of an alcoholic drink. This dopamine release is higher than those without any family history of alcoholism as well as people who have been diagnosed with the disorder.

The small study looked at a total of 65 participants: 34 with no family history of AUD or diagnosis themselves, 16 participants with a family history of AUD and no AUD diagnosis, and 15 participants diagnosed with AUD. Each participant was given two drink: one alcoholic (with vodka, tonic, and cranberry, if you were curious) and one placebo drink without alcohol. Participants didn’t know the order in which they would receive the drinks. However, those who receive the placebo first could intuit that the alcoholic drink would be second. In other words, they were cued to expect alcohol.

Dopamine may reinforce alcohol consumption, possibly contributing to risk of alcohol use disorders

Study authors used a PET scan to analysis participants’ brains, tracking the levels of dopamine released in response to the drink. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter in our brains, working as a reward center when we encounter something we like. All three groups had a similar response to the alcoholic drink, which in turn insinuates that dopamine release is normal even in those with AUD. However, the results varied in the groups when it came to the placebo drink.

"We found that the FHP participants had a much more pronounced response to the placebo drink than the other groups, indicating that expectation of alcohol caused the FHP group to release more reward center dopamine," said study author Lawrence Kegeles, MD, PhD, of Columbia University.

These results suggest that the release of dopamine may reinforce alcohol consumption, specifically among those predisposed to AUD, possibly contributing to risk of alcohol use disorders.

“This research finding exemplifies how advances in imaging brain chemistry using PET scanning can provide new insights into how differences in brain function in people with a family history of alcoholism can explain their own potential for addiction,” said Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging editor Dr. Cameron Carter.

Again, the results also suggest the release of dopamine in response to alcohol among those diagnosed with AUD is normal relative to those without an AUD diagnosis. This is equally helpful in finding ways to treat and manage AUD going forward.

The signs of alcoholism aren’t always obvious. The concept of a “high-functioning alcoholic” bucks certain stereotypes associated with addiction. There are many subtle signs of alcoholism — from an inability to stick to your drinking limits to relying on alcohol as a stress reliever — that may be difficult to detect.

This is in part because our culture is so consumed by alcohol consumption. From dollar margaritas at popular restaurant chains to rosé gathering a cult-like following, we are a culture observably obsessed with drinking. In fact, recent studies show alcohol sales spike in relation to news stress.

It’s not just in your head that we’re all drinking more because of news cycle overload. Alcohol delivery service Drizly saw an 86 percent increase in order on the 2016 election night. “Alcoholic beverages are a way to calm down the anxiety,” Steven Stosny, Ph.D., a Washington, DC area couples therapist, told Munchies. “Of course, too much of it turns out to be a depressant. [But] that first drink calms you down. Alcohol [consumption] increase goes with any popular tension.” However, using alcohol as a stress relief causes more problems than it solves.

This most recent study didn’t follow up with participants to see whether the results predicted AUD development. However, the results are certainly something to keep in mind if you have a family history of alcohol abuse and are finding yourself trying to drink away the news cycle.