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British and Chinese Research Teams Translate Brain Pathways in Alcoholism from Animal Models to Big Data

By Joe Detrano

On February 3rd 2021, an international team of translational researchers published a groundbreaking study showing the power of translational research in modeling human behaviors.

Released in the Science Advances magazine, this paper represents the collaborative efforts of twenty-six researchers between three universities. Three researchers, one from each university, led and coordinated this international effort – Professor Jianfeng Feng from The University of Warwick, Professor Trevor Robbins from The University of Cambridge, and Dr. Tianye Jia from the Fudan University of Shanghai

A full list of all authors and affiliates is available via the Science Advances webpage.

The medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), located at the front of the brain, is responsible for regulating our responses to dangerous information. According to this study, it is also the stem for alcohol addictions.

After the mOFC senses an unpleasant situation, it sends this information to the dorsal periaqueductal gray (dPAG), which then processes the information and determines how best to escape the unpleasant situation.

Examining previously available brain models from rodents, the team noticed that the mPFC and dPAG brain areas could be the cause of alcohol addiction. 

To develop this theory, they analyzed MRI brain scans from the IMAGEN dataset. The researchers found that those who had experienced alcohol addictions or abuse showed higher degrees of inhibition between the mOFC and dPAG when experiencing negative emotions or feelings.

Similarly, in a resting state, scans from individuals with histories of alcohol abuse showed more overexcited regulation pathways between the mOFC and dPAG regions.

The study notes that alcohol has both immediate and long-term effects on the dPAG region of the brain, and attempts to connect these effects to the behaviors of an individual with an Alcohol Substance Abuse Disorder.

Immediate: Alcohol inhibits the dPAG, limiting an individual’s ability to respond to negative situations or to immediate threats. This makes alcohol more appealing, as the brain can more easily ignore the harmful side effects of alcohol consumption, and may aid in the development of a compulsive drinking habit.

Long-Term: the dPAG becomes overexcited (possibly due to being inhibited from extended or frequent drinking), causing an individual to feel as if they are constantly in an unpleasant or dangerous situation. The individual may subconsciously recognize alcohol’s ability to inhibit the dPAG, causing them to seek out drunkenness as a means of escape. This is the cause of impulsive drinking.

Alcohol abuse is a global crisis, and has been so for years. According to a 2018 report by the World Health Organization, 5.1 % of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol. This study opens a new pathway to early recognition of alcoholism, and a greater understanding of how it affects the brain could lead to more effective treatments in the future.

Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies