New research shows that drinking alcohol leads to the release of endorphins in areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. (Credit: iStockphoto)
“This is something that we’ve speculated about for 30 years, based on animal studies, but haven’t observed in humans until now,” said lead author Jennifer Mitchell, PhD, clinical project director at the Gallo Center and an adjunct assistant professor of neurology at UCSF. “It provides the first direct evidence of how alcohol makes people feel good.”
“This indicates that the brains of heavy or problem drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant, and may be a clue to how problem drinking develops in the first place,” said Mitchell. “That greater feeling of reward might cause them to drink too much.”
The researchers found that endorphins released in response to drinking bind to a specific type of opioid receptor, the Mu receptor.
This result suggests a possible approach to improving the efficacy of treatment for alcohol abuse through the design of better medications than naltrexone, said Fields, who collaborated with Mitchell in the design and analysis of the study.