06 Apr Anti-Stress Medications as a Future Tool for Treating Alcoholism
As a result of findings made during a series of scientific studies conducted throughout the 2000s, doctors and researchers now know that exposure to certain types of stress can play a critical role in the development of alcohol dependence or alcoholism. They also know that a specific neurotransmitting chemical in the brain, called neuropeptide Y, helps combat the effects of stress. Current evidence indicates that an increase in the brain’s neuropeptide Y supply helps deter the development of drinking patterns that ultimately result in alcoholism. In the future, researchers may be able to use this knowledge as the basis for the creation of new anti-alcoholism medications.
Stress is a natural human reaction to circumstances or situations that pose a threat to one’s safety and well-being. From an evolutionary perspective, we use this reaction to prepare ourselves to “fight” a threat or “flee” from it as soon as possible. In the modern world, most people experience the same reaction on a daily basis in response to a wide variety of minor and major annoyances and difficulties. According to the results of a study published in 2011 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, many young people learn to drink alcohol as a means of coping with the mental and physical effects of unusually stressful situations. In the long run, this type of learned drinking might play a significant part in the development of alcohol dependence. In active and recovering alcoholics, alcohol-related changes in the brain’s normal stress responses act as a major factor in the onset of alcoholism-related brain damage.
Neuropeptide Y Basics
Neuropeptide is the general term for a group of substances in the brain that closely resemble proteins (known more formally as peptides); these substances get their name (neuro-peptides) because they act as neurotransmitters and facilitate communication between the brain’s primary nerve cells, called neurons. Neuropeptide Y is produced in a brain structure called the hypothalamus—which helps activate the natural stress response—as well as in a structure called the amygdala, which helps create emotional responses and emotion-based memories. Like all other neurotransmitters, it alters the function of neurons in these structures by interacting with sites, called receptors, located on neuron exteriors. As previously noted, neuropeptide Y helps reduce the impact of stress; other functions of the neurotransmitter include anxiety reduction, pain reduction, seizure control and regulation of the body’s natural sleeping patterns.
Effects on Drinking Patterns and Alcoholism Risks
When a person drinks significant amounts of alcohol, he or she naturally goes through minor forms of withdrawal when that alcohol gets broken down and eliminated from the body. In many cases, casual drinkers knowingly or unknowingly respond to the effects of this limited withdrawal by drinking more alcohol. Over time, drinking as a response to minor alcohol withdrawal can gradually lead to increasing amounts of alcohol consumption. In certain individuals, the repeated pattern of withdrawal and increased alcohol consumption eventually leads to changes in normal brain function that support the onset of alcohol dependence. Once dependence sets in, the affected individual habitually drinks in order to avoid the effects of more serious and destabilizing forms of alcohol withdrawal.
In a study published in 2011 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute examined the effects of intravenous (IV) infusions of neuropeptide Y on the drinking habits of rats that had developed alcohol dependencies. Rats are often used in these types of studies because their responses to certain testing procedures closely mimic the responses of human beings. When compared to rats who did not receive neuropeptide Y infusions, the treated rats showed a significant decline in their desire to increase their alcohol intake; this decline remained in effect long after the neuropeptide Y treatments came to an end. In addition, rats that were not dependent on alcohol also reduced their alcohol intake when given neuropeptide Y.
The researchers at Scripps Research Institute believe that the increased availability of neuropeptide Y inside the brain essentially breaks the cycle of gradually increasing alcohol consumption that marks that switch from casual, voluntary drinking to compulsive, involuntary drinking. In addition to its anti-stress effects, the neuropeptide apparently creates this result by stopping alcohol from interfering with the production of another neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid); without an increased level of neuropeptide Y, disruption of normal GABA production helps alcohol trigger the cravings that support the development of alcohol dependence.
In the future, pharmaceutical researchers may be able to develop medications that mimic the effects of neuropeptide Y infusions by internally altering the way in which neuropeptide Y interacts with its receptors inside the brain. If this line of research is successful, doctors may eventually have a new set of medical tools for breaking the chronic cycle of drinking in active alcoholics or preventing relapses in recovering alcoholics.
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