See Your Brain on Booze

on 25/01/12 at 11:56 am

Booze News

The human brain is a tangled mess of somewhere between 80 and 120-billion neurons, and these neurons are continuously creating and breaking trillions of connections with one another. What the incongruous results of Nutt and Vollenweider call attention to is the fact that neuroimaging studies have to approach the complexity of the brain from as many angles as possible. More specifically, it reveals that the answer to the question “what does my brain look like when I smoke/snort/shoot/drink/eat _________” cannot be answered by any one study.

Think about all the factors you’d have to consider when conducting such an investigation; it would be impossible to incorporate them all. We’ve already mentioned one (the potentially disparate effects of intravenous versus oral administration of a drug) but there are many, many more.

For example, after you’ve decided how to dose your patient, you must decide whether you want them to perform a task, or just sit there while you observe their brain activity. This image, for instance, is taken from a study — published in Neuropsychopharmacology in 2005— that examined the brain activity of drunk test participants who were subjected to a realistic, simulated driving challenge.

This figure is brimming with information (those interested can click through to familiarize themselves with the nitty-gritty details), but here’s the gist: Various regions of the brain scans in the figure are labeled with different colors. These colors correspond to activity observed at specific points of interest withint the brain. We’re interested in the ones labeled in pink and red. These hues correspond to the orbitofrontal and motor regions of the brain, respectively. The former is involved in decision-making, the latter in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary motor functions.

When the researchers upped the blood alcohol level of their test subjects — first from 0.0% to 0.04%, and later from 0.04% to 0.08% — it was within these two brain circuits that they observed the greatest disruption in activation. Translation: these cerebellar snapshots help reveal why, on a neurophysiological level, drinking nerfs your motor skills and decision making in a simulated (and, presumably, real-life) driving situation.

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