Researchers find that repeated alcohol use increases synaptic plasticity of the brain

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have found that alcohol allows specific parts of the brain to remember better.

Hitoshi Morikawa, study leader and a neurobiologist at the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin, and a team of UT Austin researchers, have discovered that ethanol exposure increases synaptic plasticity in the brain.

Drinking alcohol is usually not tied positively to learning and memory, but this study found that repeated ethanol consumption increases synaptic plasticity in the brain, which, according to Morikawa, is evidence that alcohol and drug addiction is a memory and learning disorder.  

"Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we're talking about conscious memory," said Morikawa. "Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like your colleague's name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning. But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or 'conditionability' at that level."

According to Morikawa, drinking alcohol or using drugs teaches our subconscious to consume more, but at the same time, we become more receptive to subconscious memory making with people, music, food, etc. Morikawa also noted that alcoholics aren't addicted to the pleasure alcohol gives them, but rather a combination of behavioral, physiological and environmental cues that are augmented when alcohol provokes the release of dopamine in the brain.

As far as this study goes, alcohol takes over the dopaminergic system, and tells our brain that what we're doing is "rewarding" and worthy of repeating. We also learn that going to the bar or talking with friends is rewarding. 

"People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter," said Morikawa. "It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released."

The more a person does while drinking, the more dopamine is released. This leads to the increased likelihood that these synapses are repeated. 

With this knowledge, Morikawa would like to create anti-addiction drugs that weaken these synapses rather than strengthen them, like alcohol and drugs do. This would completely erase the addiction from a person's subconscious memory.

"We're talking about de-wiring things," said Morikawa. "It's kind of scary because it has the potential to be a mind controlling substance. Our goal, though, is to reverse the mind controlling aspects of addictive drugs."

This study was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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