Brain and Body

In a First, Scientists Discover a Brain Circuit in Mice That Causes Binge Drinking

April 27, 2016 | Kelly Tatera


A treatment for alcohol dependence may finally be on its way.

For the first time, scientists have identified a circuit between two brain regions that control binge drinking habits, which offers us a “more complete pictures on what drives a behavior that costs the United States more than $170 billion annually,” according to the study press release.

The two brain areas have been identified to play a role in alcohol binge drinking in the past, but this is the first time that they’ve been implicated as a functional circuit, which could give us a better idea of how to treat alcohol dependence.

The first brain area, called the extended amygdala, is involved in the response to psychological stress and anxiety, like when someone loses a loved one or a job. The second, called the ventral tegmental area, has been long known to respond to the rewarding properties of natural reinforcers, like food, but also to the reinforcing properties of drugs and alcohol.

The brain areas are connected by neurons that produce a substance called corticotropin releasing factor, or CRF, which plays a role in the stress response.

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The study results, which are published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, provide the first direct evidence in mice that inhibiting the circuit between these two brain regions can protect against binge alcohol drinking.

"The puzzle is starting to come together, and is telling us more than we ever knew about before," researcher Todd Thiele of UNC-Chapel Hill's College of Arts and Sciences, said in a press release. "We now know that two brain regions that modulate stress and reward are part of a functional circuit that controls binge drinking and adds to the idea that manipulating the CRF system is an avenue for treating it."

In the study, Thiele and his colleagues demonstrated that alcohol activates the CRF neurons in the extended amygdala, which directly acts on the ventral tegmental area. This suggests that when someone drinks alcohol, the CRF neurons become active in this brain circuit to promote continued and excessive drinking, eventually spiraling into a binge.

Thiele says that these findings may help scientists develop future pharmacological treatments to help individuals curb binge drinking, and may even help prevent the transition to full-blown alcohol dependence.

"It's very important that we continue to try to identify alternative targets for treating alcohol use disorders," Thiele said. "If you can stop somebody from binge drinking, you might prevent them from ultimately becoming alcoholics.”

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