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Brain circuit that controls binge drinking identified

US researchers have identified a circuit in the brain that they claim could be manipulated in order to control the urge to binge drink.

US research suggests that “turning off” a circuit in the brain could reduce a person’s inclination to binge drink.

Publishing their findings in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have identified a circuit between two brain regions that they say controls the urge to binge drink.

The two brain areas – the extended amygdala and the ventral tegmental area – have been linked to alcoholism in the past. However, this is the first time that the two areas have been identified as a functional circuit.

The extended amygdala has long been known to respond to psychological stress and anxiety, such as when someone loses a job or a loved one; while the ventral tegmental responds to the rewarding properties of natural reinforcers, such as food, but also to the reinforcing properties of drugs of abuse, including alcohol.

Thiele’s research shows that alcohol, a physiological stressor, activates the neurons in the extended amygdala, which then triggers the ventral tegmental area. Observations in mice suggest that when someone drinks alcohol, the extended amygdala impacts upon the ventral tegmental area to promote continued drinking. “Turning off” this circuit could therefore reduce a person’s inclination to binge drink.

“The puzzle is starting to come together, and is telling us more than we ever knew about before,” said Todd Thiele of UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of psychology and neuroscience. “We now know that two brain regions that modulate stress and reward are part of a functional circuit that controls binge drinking and adds to the idea that manipulating the CRF system is an avenue for treating it.”

Thiele believes the team’s findings could help uncover new treatments to prevent individuals from becoming dependent on alcohol in the future.

“It’s very important that we continue to try to identify alternative targets for treating alcohol use disorders,” Thiele said. “If you can stop somebody from binge drinking, you might prevent them from ultimately becoming alcoholics. We know that people who binge drink, especially in their teenage years, are much more likely to become alcoholic-dependent later in life.”

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