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Study shows how alcohol makes us feel so good…duh

on 12/01/12 at 4:48 pm

Booze News

We drink for the buzz, and researchers have learned how alcohol makes us feel so good — some more so than others.

Alcohol was probably the first mind-altering drug people came to rely on for a regular high, but exactly how it produces its buzz isn’t clear yet.  Now a new study finds that the feel-good effects of spirits may be tied to the brain’s natural painkillers—the endogenous opioids.

The study was the first to image the brains of human drinkers and examine how and where alcohol affects endogenous opioid release.  Researchers scanned the brains of 25 people they recruited from Craig’s List, 13 of whom were heavy social drinkers who imbibed between 10-20 drinks a week (10-16 for women, 14-20 for men).  The rest drank fewer than seven alcoholic beverages weekly.

The authors found that in both groups, alcohol increased levels of endogenous opioids in the brain’s “pleasure center,” the nucleus accumbens.  It also increased opioid activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a higher brain region involved with reward, impulse control and with evaluating how desirable an experience, person or object is.

Compared to the light drinkers, however, the heavy drinkers reported feeling more intoxicated and a greater high— and the scientists figured out why. The heavy drinkers showed more opioid release in the OFC than the lighter drinkers.

The study “provides the first direct evidence of how alcohol makes people feel good,” lead author Jennifer Mitchell, assistant professor of neurology at UCSF, said in a statement. Not surprisingly, the better alcohol made people feel, the more likely they were to drink heavily in the feedback loop that is typical of some addictive behavior.

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