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Bucknell researcher finds first taste of alcohol can have long-lasting effects

One in 6 adults binge drinks, and that plays a role in most alcohol-related deaths.
One in 6 adults binge drinks, and that plays a role in most alcohol-related deaths.

About 20% of all people who consume alcohol develop an unhealthy use, accounting for over 5% of worldwide deaths.

Bucknell University psychology and neuroscience professor Judy Grisel was among those who developed an unhealthy relationship with substances.

Dr. Grisel began her recovery from addiction 30 years ago. Since then, she has studied substance dependency and wrote a New York Times best-selling book Never Enough, the Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.

Grisel has authored a new study that examines brain activity from a single exposure to alcohol and the impact it can have on some people,”I was trying to understand what’s different about the brains of people like me, who go on to develop a problem before they ever start using. So we now know that the brains of people who have substance use disorders are different before they begin, while they’re using. And then even after they’re finished, hopefully. And I wanted to probe the mechanisms of those differences. We know, for example, that a big portion of your risk, maybe up to 50%, is something you’re born with. But for the most part, we don’t really know what it is that you’re born with that makes you differently sensitive. And one of the things in the clinic. That has been shown probably for maybe 45 years, is that people who go on to develop a problem, the first time they get it, they they tend to have a different response, a more euphoric response and a less sedated response.”

Grisel and her team of researchers used mice to experiment with the impact on the brain from the first time they consumed alcohol.

Grisel indicated age is a factor in addiction. She said that a person who doesn’t drink until age 21 has a one-in-25 chance of becoming dependent. A person who drinks before age 18 has a one-in-four chance.

The research found that the amount of endorphins released in the brain can predispose a person to dependency, ”Endorphin is a neurotransmitter that’s synthesized and released in response to getting alcohol. And there is, again, an old human literature showing that, that synthesis and release a sensitivity of the brain, in other words, to alcohol and its ability to make endorphin is correlated with your susceptibility to having an alcohol use disorder. So we tested that hypothesis, and we found that, mice that were genetically engineered to have different amounts of endorphin responded to the initial alcohol differently. So the ones that had low endorphin, in fact, were different than or no endorphin were different than the ones that did have endorphins. So there was age effects and no neurotransmitter effects.”

What does Grisel want people to take away from the research, ”I would like people to understand that there is an inherent liability in some people more than others, that it’s not just a matter of choice. And even more importantly, that the brain is so malleable and plastic that there’s always hope for recovery.”