Alcohol can be a destructive substance when drinking gets out of control, but a recent neurological discovery could lead to a way to help people break addictive cycles. Scientists from the Texas A&M College of Medicine identified the neurons in the brain that enable and discourage drinking habits in mice.

The study, which was published in the most recent issue of the medical journal Biological Psychiatry, says that neurons located in the dorsomedial striatum, the part of the brain that facilitates goal-driven behavior located in the subcortical part of the forebrain, could play a major role in controlling alcohol addiction.

The neurons studied have small, spiny protrusions branching off of them called D1 or D2. Neurons with D1 protrusions encourage actions while neurons with D2 protrusions discourage actions. A previous study by the same team of researchers published in August of last year in the Journal of Neuroscience found that the D1 neuron drove mice to consume more alcohol. The newest study extends from that research and identifies the D2 neuron as the receptor that can stop mice from seeking out another drink when they've had a few too many already.

Researchers were able to pinpoint these neurons as the gas and brake pedals of alcohol addiction by measuring and manipulating their strength in mice. The data collected from the study shows that weakening the signals from the D2 neurons drove the mice to seek out more alcohol and activating them curbed the mice's trained activity to belly up to the bottle. The results show that repeated consumption of alcohol strengthens the D1 neuron and weakens the D2 neuron in the midst of a drinking binge.

"Think of the binge drinking behavior of so many young adults," says Jun Wang, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine's Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics who co-authored the study. "Essentially they are probably doing the same thing that we've shown leads to inhibition of these so-called 'good' neurons and contributes to greater alcohol consumption."

Wang notes, however, that these results don't currently provide a direct method for treating alcoholism in humans on a neurological level.

"That's the ultimate goal," Wang said. "I hope these findings will eventually be able to be used for treatment for alcohol addiction."

Researchers have made similar discoveries about the role that neurons may play in driving our basic instincts. A separate study published recently in the journal Neuron found similar results about neurons that drive food consumption and hunger. Researchers from Tufts University discovered that the metabolic sensor protein AMPK activates the agouti-related peptide (AgRP) neurons located in the brain's hypothalamus making us feel more hungry even after we've eaten.

Source: Texas A&M