At risk for alcoholism

by Tim Hornyak, BA’95

Soon, it’ll be the season for office holiday parties and New Year’s Eve bashes. Moderation is key when drinking, but for some who find themselves craving more alcohol, the problem might be neurological. Recent McGill research indicates that the brains of those at risk of developing alcoholism behave differently.

A study of 26 healthy social drinkers found that people at risk for the addiction exhibited a more pronounced dopamine response in the brain pathway that controls desire for rewards.

“We have been searching for differences in the brain that might influence this differential susceptibility,” says psychiatry professor and lead researcher Marco Leyton, who published the findings in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The 18 men and eight women who took part in the study were screened for alcoholism risk based on personality traits and on how quickly they felt drunk after imbibing. They were subjected to two PET brain scan exams after drinking either juice or alcohol in a 15-minute period. Those who were considered more susceptible to alcoholism showed an unusually large dopamine response when they drank.       

“Different dopamine responses to alcohol seem to be associated with impulsive, reward- and sensation-seeking personality traits, a family history of substance use problems, and a tendency to experience lower sedative responses when drinking,” says Leyton.

Exactly why these brains act differently is unclear. The results will have to be replicated and the research expanded.

“One of the most important implications is that we might be able to identify at-risk people before they develop a substance use problem. By obtaining a better understanding of why they are at elevated risk, it might be possible to develop strategies that help prevent them from becoming addicted.”



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