Why Do People Become Alcohol-Dependent? Researchers to Probe Brain Receptors

A research team at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is targeting the brain’s opiate receptor system in trying to answer the age-old question of why some people can remain social drinkers while others who drink develop serious alcohol problems, the Johns Hopkins University Gazette reported April 19.

A $1 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant funded through federal stimulus dollars will help Elise Weerts and colleagues in building on prior brain research that found binding at opioid receptors is different in alcohol-dependent individuals. Weerts, an associate professor of behavioral biology at the medical school, said “what we don’t know is whether these differences were there before alcohol dependence or were a result of heavy long-term drinking.”

The two-year study will involve about 60 healthy social drinkers ages 21 to 30 who will provide their drinking history and will receive positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans. Also as part of the study, the subjects will receive small amounts of alcohol in controlled settings and will have their responses analyzed in comparison to brain scan results.

“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,” Weerts said. “This should help.”

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