For a long time scientists have known that stress plays a role in how much alcohol a person consumes. People under a lot of stress tend to rely more heavily on alcohol to minimize these feelings, but researchers and those in the medical community had a difficult time pinpointing why this was the case, physically. In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted experiments on rats with different levels of stress and their relationship to alcohol.
The research team created stressful environments for some rats, while keeping others in a relaxed environment, each for one hour. After the hour, the rats were given sugar water laced with ethanol. The rats that had been exposed to stress were found to drink much more of the alcohol water than the rats that were not exposed to stress. This information was used to lead researchers down a path of discovery that revealed that stress compromises the reaction to dopamine in the brain. The results were published in the journal Neuron.
Dopamine is a naturally-occurring chemical that causes a person to feel good. The rats that were not responding the same way to dopamine then relied on the alcohol to provide that for them. The study also found that stress altered neuron physiology. After several stress trials, the rats’ brains required more and more alcohol, thus the rats consumed more alcohol when it was made available to them.
“These effects happen at the minute level of potassium, chloride, and other ions moving across the neuron outer membrane via channels and transporters. In addition, by chemically blocking stress hormone receptors on neurons, we prevented stress from causing increased drinking behavior,” explained Dr. John Dani, chair of the department of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, the research team was able to correct the alcohol-related dopamine response by administering a chemical called CLP290. This led to them being able to reduce the alcohol consumption and restore neural circuitry. According to Dani, “This line of research has implications for people with PTSD who have an increased risk for over-use of alcohol and drugs.”
Minimizing the amount of stress in one’s life, and finding healthier ways to be more resilient, is important for many health reasons. Stress can exasperate medical conditions, cause a person to lose or gain weight, and have a negative impact on their emotional state. Alcohol abuse can now be added to that list and researchers are hoping that this information can be used to help those struggling with stress to avoid developing an addiction to alcohol as well.