Chronic Drinking Rewires Brain and Increases Anxiety Problems
The link between alcoholism and anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been well established by doctors for some time. Heavy alcohol use increases the risk for traumatic events like car accidents and domestic violence, but that only partially explains the connection.
A study conducted by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and UNC’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies suggests that heavy alcohol use rewires brain circuitry, making it harder for alcoholics to recover psychologically following a traumatic experience.
What Research Says
Chronic exposure to alcohol can cause a deficit about how our cognitive brain centers control our emotional brain centers. “A history of heavy alcohol abuse could impair a critical mechanism for recovering from a trauma, and in doing so put people at greater risk for PTSD,” said NIAAA scientist Andrew Holmes, PhD, the study’s senior author. “The next step will be to test whether our preclinical findings translate to patients currently suffering from comorbid PTSD and alcohol abuse. If it does, then this could lead to new thinking about how we can better treat these serious medical conditions.”
Over the course of a month, the researchers gave one group of mice doses of alcohol equivalent to double the legal driving limit in humans. A second group of mice was given no alcohol. The team then used mild electric shocks to train all the mice to fear the sound of a brief tone.
When the tone was repeatedly played without the accompanying electric shock, the mice with no alcohol exposure gradually stopped fearing it. The mice with chronic alcohol exposure, on the other hand, froze in place each time the tone was played, even long after the electric shocks had stopped.
Alcohol & Anxiety
Understanding the relationship between alcohol and anxiety at the molecular level could offer new possibilities for developing drugs to help patients with anxiety disorders who also have a history of heavy alcohol use. This study is exciting because it gives us a specific molecule to look at in a specific brain region, thus opening the door to discovering new methods to treat these disorders.
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