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PET Images May Predict Drinking Problems

April 22, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Using PET imaging, a Johns Hopkins group will try to answer a longstanding public health question: why can some people drink only socially and other people can drink only to excess?

Examining the brain’s opioid peptides and their binding to receptors, the group formerly concluded that the physical pleasure of a drink, which is probably controlled by the receptor binding, is magnified in people with alcohol problems.

In a chicken-before-the-egg postulation, the research team will try to find out if certain people are neurologically bound toward possible alcohol addiction. The team will be led by Elise Weerts, associate professor of behavioral biology in the School of Medicine and a member of the Integrated Program of Substance Abuse Research (IPSAR), as reported in The JHU Gazette.

“We wanted to test the possibility that differences in brain chemistry can influence alcoholism risk,” Weerts said. “We know that some individuals are less sensitive to the effects of alcohol than are others, and this may increase how often and how much they drink. Our study will determine if these differences might originate in the brain’s opiate receptor system….What we don’t know is whether these differences were there before alcohol dependence or were a result of heavy long-term drinking.”

Over the next two years, IPSAR will work with 60 socially drinking 21- to 30-year-old men and women. They will psychologically screen them as to current and past drinking habits, and they will perform PET scans to map the receptors. They will also give them controlled amounts of alcohol in controlled situations. Finally, they will give them questionnaires on how the alcohol affects them. IPSAR team members will compare those answers to the social drinking history and the PET scans.

“This research is important, as only a subset of people who drink alcohol go on to develop abuse and dependence disorders,” Weerts said. “We don’t have a good understanding of all the factors that can either increase a person’s risk or, alternatively, reduce his risk of future alcohol problems. This should help.”

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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