New Studies Provide Data for Understanding and Treating Alcoholism

Science continues to investigate the brain mechanisms involved in alcoholism. Today, we're going to look at what the latest studies say.
New Studies Provide Data for Understanding and Treating Alcoholism

Last update: 20 July, 2022

Alcoholism is a problem that affects around 100 million people in the world. Indeed, the effects of this addiction are devastating, for the sufferer, their immediate environment, and for society in general. It not only generates extremely serious physical effects but also has a strong psychosocial impact.

Worst of all, alcoholism is one of the most difficult addictions to eradicate. In fact, no effective medications have been developed to treat this problem. Using those currently available, it’s estimated that the relapse rate has reached 90 percent.

This is indicated by a new study conducted by the University of Illinois (USA), which claims new clues have been found to treat alcoholism. Although the research was conducted with mice, it produced significant findings. Let’s take a closer look.

Excessive alcohol consumption in adolescence is one of the risk factors for alcohol dependence in adulthood, but also for anxiety disorders.”

-Anna Lorenzen-

Man with alcohol problems
Drinking alcohol reduces the size of the brain.

A new study on alcoholism

As we mentioned earlier, this study was conducted by the University of Illinois. The team was led by Subhash Pandey and their findings were published in the prestigious journal, Science Advances. The research allowed a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in alcoholism. It’s highly likely that, in the near future, this will facilitate the development of drugs to treat this addiction.

The researchers administered large amounts of alcohol to a group of young rats. The animals were between 27 and 41 days old. That’s equivalent to between ten and 18 years in the life of humans. There was another group of rats of the same age to which the substance wasn’t administered.

The scientists verified that the alcohol-consuming rats had a lower amount of a protein called Arc. This occurs in the cerebral amygdala, a region that’s involved in the regulation of anxiety and is associated with addictions.

In both mice and humans, the transition from infancy to adult life is a critical stage of development. At this point, the brain is in the process of restructuring and is highly sensitive to alcohol consumption. The reduction of Arc protein in the mice caused chemical changes in their DNA.

The second part of the study

In the second part of the experiment, the scientists wondered if the changes caused by alcohol consumption could be reversed. They used a sophisticated system known as ‘genetic scissors’. Through this, the change caused in the DNA by the consumption of alcohol was ‘removed’, so to speak.

By applying this method, the production of the Arc protein in the young rates returned to normal levels. Both water and alcohol were made available for the animals to drink and they preferred water. Furthermore, they exhibited lower levels of anxiety. Consequently, the researchers were able to verify that the change was reversible.

There are still several unresolved questions. However, the important role that Arc protein plays in alcoholism is clear. The researchers also concluded that alcohol consumption at an early age not only increases the probability of addiction in adulthood but also of suffering from anxiety disorders.

Woman with alcoholism problems
Alcohol dependence is characterized by deficits in the physiological regulation of endogenous motivation and reward systems.

Another study

Other research conducted by the Queensland University of Technology (Australia) found that serotonin plays an extremely important role in alcoholism. More specifically, it’s a serotonin receptor called 5-HT1A. In this experiment, the mice were exposed to alcohol for two hours and then deprived of it for 24 hours.

The cycle was repeated for 12 weeks. By this stage, the mice had higher levels of anxiety. They were given an anxiolytic called tandospirone, which is capable of activating the serotonin 5-HT1A receptor. After this, the mice were found to have lower levels of anxiety and were less inclined to drink alcohol.

Similarly, tandospirone was able to normalize the neurogenesis process (the production of new neurons). It should be noted that alcohol reduces the number of immature neurons in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. The anxiolytic reversed that process and normalized it. Therefore, this is another important finding that could lead to the design of drugs capable of treating alcoholism.

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  • Belmer, A., Patkar, O. L., Lanoue, V., & Bartlett, S. E. (2018). 5-HT1A receptor-dependent modulation of emotional and neurogenic deficits elicited by prolonged consumption of alcohol. Scientific reports8(1), 1-12.
  • Bohnsack, J. P., Zhang, H., Wandling, G. M., He, D., Kyzar, E. J., Lasek, A. W., & Pandey, S. C. (2022). Targeted epigenomic editing ameliorates adult anxiety and excessive drinking after adolescent alcohol exposure. Science advances8(18), eabn2748.
  • Teague, C. D., & Nestler, E. J. (2022). Teenage drinking and adult neuropsychiatric disorders: An epigenetic connection. Science Advances, 8(18), eabq5934.