According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (USCF), endorphins in the brain are released that produce feelings of reward and pleasure for those who drink alcohol which is a clue into why it can be so addicting. This is the first time researchers have observed this endorphin release in humans, according to an article in Science Daily.
Endorphins are produced in the brain naturally and are small proteins that cause opiate-like effects. Lead author, Dr. Jennifer Mitchell says they have suspected this was the case for humans but had only observed it in animal studies until now. Mitchell says this study provided the first direct proof as to how alcohol affects people’s mood. This discovery provides a possible target area for the development of drugs to help treat alcoholics since they have now found the precise area where the endorphins are released.
Researchers used PET imaging, known as positron emission tomography, to watch the immediate effects the alcohol does to the brains of the patients they observed. In all subjects, the intake of alcohol led to the release of endorphins. The more endorphins that were released, the more feelings of pleasure were felt by the drinker. Additionally, for those who were heavy drinkers, they saw higher levels of intoxication but this was not seen in the control group of non-drinkers. Mitchell says the results show that the brains of problem drinkers are altered in such a way making them more apt to find the alcohol pleasurable and this might be a clue to how their drinking problem began initially.
The results indicate that a possible approach to treating alcohol abuse may lie in targeting the opioid receptors that the endorphins bind to.