The alcoholic brain

My father was an alcoholic, so was his father and all of his father’s brothers.

When my dad told me that I was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to believe him. I didn’t want to accept that alcoholism really was a disease and it was something I had. It didn’t matter that I had good grades, didn’t drink during the daytime, or that a lot of my friends also went out binge-drinking, my brain was addicted to alcohol.

On New Year’s Eve, I nearly drank myself to death. I didn’t go out with the intention to get drunk,  nobody was pressuring me, I wasn’t sad or depressed, I just kept going. Once I passed that two drink line I just couldn’t stop, drinking liquor like it was water. It was like I was on auto-pilot and the real me would disappear.

It am still working on accepting the fact that I have a disease, that my brain is wired differently than other people. So I’ve started to do my research to better understand how the research behind how the alcoholic brain works.

The following is adapted from the US Surgeon General’s report on addiction.

Addictive substances “hijack” the brain’s reward systems

The brain’s opioid system – which includes naturally occurring opioids such as endorphins and opioid receptors – plays a key role in mediating the rewarding effects of addictive substances, including alcohol.

Opioid –  a substance that binds to opioid receptors in the brain.

Opioids trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion and feelings of pleasure. Our bodies release natural opioids that attach to these receptors and signal reactions that block pain, slow breathing, and produce a general feeling of calm. Source

Neurotransmitter – chemical messengers that allow nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another.

Brain imaging studies in human show activation of dopamine and opioid neurotransmitters during alcohol use. People with alcohol, cocaine or opioid use disorders show impairments in executive function, including disruption of decision-making and behavioral inhibition.

Executive function –   the ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage and regulate one’s own actions, emotions and impulses. Executive function is controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex. 

Genetic factors are thought to account for 40-70% of individual differences in addiction.

I was curious to learn more about the research on genetics since I study in science in school. If you’re interested in learning more, check out my post on The Role of the D2 Gene.

I feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface on understanding the alcoholic brain. It can feel exhausting to try to find the answers from credible sources, but I believe it’s key to understanding how alcoholism functions as a disease.


Surgeon General’s Report on Addiction


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