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Scientists delve into the alcoholic brain

brain October 15, 1995
Web posted at: 1:40 a.m. EDT

Levine From Medical Correspondent Jeff Levine

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scientists are beginning to understand some of the mysteries of alcoholism. Their focus is on the brain, and the goal is new drug treatments.

Researcher Dan Hommer of the National Institutes of Health is looking inside the alcoholic brain. He reviews scans of healthy people and alcoholics. The images of the alcoholic brain clearly show the ravages of drinking.

It is known that women are more susceptible to alcohol. But the images show something new. "It's the first time we've been able to see evidence for greater brain damage in women than among men," Hommer says. Hommer points out a structure called the corpus callosum. The channel between the left and right brain is noticeably smaller among the alcoholics.

Hommer Up until recently, scientists haven't been able to show directly how alcohol affects the brain. But studies at the National Institutes of Health could lead to a number of different drugs to dampen alcohol's effects. "While AA itself is one of the extraordinary human accomplishments of the 20th century, it is not the final answer to alcoholism treatment, and that's what our research is designed to add to," says Dr. Enoch Gordis of the National Institutes of Health.

Back in Hommer's lab, they're trying to figure out why a chronic drinker craves alcohol. Patients are given a drug that makes them want to drink. Most people are able to control that impulse. But in alcoholics, a control switch fails to turn on. "Something at the base of the brain is just not activating this circuit," Hommer says.

beer There are two drugs to treat alcoholism: Antabuse, which makes drinking physically unbearable, and the more promising Naltrexone, which reduces the craving for alcohol. "It interferes with the reward circuits in the brain, that is, those neuroconnections which make a behavior so rewarding that it's apt to be repeated," Gordis says.

Scientists hope to develop new and even more potent drugs by studying neurotransmitters, the brain's chemical messengers which may regulate craving. One day, it may be possible to prevent someone from becoming an alcoholic.

Studies show some children of alcoholic parents have a harder time concentrating. For example, a test calls for the subject to intentionally not look at a red light when it's turned on. "So, it's really a measure of ability to inhibit a behavior that's not appropriate to the current context," Hommer says, "and so in that sense, it's a measure of impulse control."

Even as understanding increases, scientists don't see a magic cure for alcoholism. Treatment will likely combine drugs to curb desire and psychotherapy to help heal the soul.

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