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Brain Scans Reveal ‘Happy Drunk’ Receptor

May 25, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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A new study using PET imaging of the brain has determined that some people enjoy getting drunk more than others.

Well, okay, there’s a little more to it than that. The study found that, in your brain, whether alcohol triggers a release of dopamine seems to depend on which genetic variant you have of a receptor in the brain’s reward circuitry. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and euphoria.

The presence of the dopamine-triggering variant may help explain why some people enjoy the effects of alcohol more than others. And it could help in developing treatments for alcohol abuse.

Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) studied opioid peptid receptors. Opioid peptides are amino acids that play an important role in motivation and emotion, among other things. If alcohol activates the mu-subtype of opioid receptor, then dopamine is released from the forebrain. And the drinker feels good.

If the presence of alcohol does not activate the mu-subtype, then dopamine is not released.

Markus Heilig, MD, PhD, NIAAA clinical director and the study’s senior author, said that people who carry the 118G variant of the mu-pioid receptor report increased euphoria after consuming alcohol.  So his group used PET to compare dopamine release in two groups of people who had been given alcohol. One group carried a copy of the 118G gene. The other group carried genes for the more common 118A variant.

Only the 118G group showed a dopamine release after alcohol.

The researchers also inserted genes for either the 118G or the 118A mu-opioid receptor variant into mice. When given alcohol, the mice with the 118G variant had a peak dopamine response four times greater than that of the 118A mice.

“By advancing our understanding of the neurobiology that underlies the addictive properties of alcohol, this finding helps us understand why alcohol affects people in very different ways,” said Kenneth R. Warren, PhD, acting NIAAA director. “This kind of information also aids the development of personalized medications for alcohol problems.”

The NIAAA is part of the National Institutes of Health. A report on the findings was published last week in the online version of Molecular Psychiatry.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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