A new study of the actions of alcohol could bring a fresh approach to the treatment of addiction.

Researchers believe alcohol influences our subconscious perception of events, improving our appreciation of things such as food, music and even socializing with people. Such fun and rewarding moments increase our desire to experience similar pleasurable events again.

In fact, consumption of alcohol appears to help certain areas of the brain to learn and remember better, said researchers from The University of Texas at Austin.

This viewpoint appears to contradict the common belief that drinking is bad for learning and memory, said neurobiologist Dr. Hitoshi Morikawa, but in reality, alcohol is a complex drug affecting the brain in numerous ways.

“Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we’re talking about conscious memory,” said Morikawa, whose results were published last month in The Journal of Neuroscience.

“Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like your colleague’s name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning. But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or ‘conditionability,’ at that level.”

Researchers discovered repeated exposure to alcohol enhances synaptic plasticity in a key area in the brain – meaning that the brain is more receptive to some forms of learning – a finding that corresponds to emerging research that suggests drug and alcohol addiction is fundamentally a learning and memory disorder.

When we drink alcohol (or shoot up heroin, or snort cocaine, or take methamphetamines), our subconscious is learning to consume more. But it doesn’t stop there. We become more receptive to forming subsconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations.

Morikawa said a key distinction in understanding addiction is that alcoholics aren’t addicted to the experience of pleasure or relief they get from drinking alcohol.

They’re addicted to the “experience of the moment” including the environmental, behavioral and physiological cues. These feelings are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.

“People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it’s a learning transmitter,” said Morikawa. “It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released.”

Alcohol, in this model, is the enabler. It hijacks the dopaminergic system, and it tells our brain that what we’re doing at that moment is rewarding (and thus worth repeating).

Among the things we learn is that drinking alcohol is rewarding. We also learn that going to the bar, chatting with friends, eating certain foods and listening to certain kinds of music are rewarding.

The more often we do these things while drinking, and the more dopamine that gets released, the more “potentiated” the various synapses become and the more we crave the set of experiences and associations that orbit around the alcohol use.

Morikawa’s long-term hope is that by understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of addiction better, he can develop anti-addiction drugs that would weaken, rather than strengthen, the key synapses. And if he can do that, he would be able to erase the subconscious memory of addiction.

“We’re talking about de-wiring things,” said Morikawa. “It’s kind of scary because it has the potential to be a mind-controlling substance. Our goal, though, is to reverse the mind controlling aspects of addictive drugs.”

Source: University of Texas – Austin