Stress May Cause You to Drink More Alcohol – Study

Stress and alcohol use are closely related. Acute stress is believed to precipitate alcohol consumption. Yet, after years of research, the relationship between stress and alcohol drinking remains unclear.

Now researchers at the University of Pennsylvania claim to have discovered exactly why and how increased stress leads to increased alcohol consumption. According to the researchers, stress leads to changes in the brain’s reward system that in turn could spur people to drink more.

A team of researchers led by John Dani, PhD, chair of the department of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania conducted tests with mice model and found changes in chemical composition in common neural systems, including the brain reward centre, play a key role in encouraging rodents to self-medicate with alcohol.

To determine the link between brain chemistry involved in stress and increased alcohol use, Dani and colleagues exposed rats to an acute stress for one hour, and then 15 hours later measured the amount of sugar water laced with ethanol that the mice consumed. They found that the stressed rats drank substantially more than their peers that were not exposed to stress, and this increase lasted for several weeks.

They discovered that as compared to controls mice exposed to stress had a weakened response to dopamine which made them voluntarily drink more and more of the substance.

Interestingly, investigators succeeded in reversing the negative effects of the erroneous excitatory signal through a chemical called CLP290.

“These effects happen at the minute level of potassium, chloride, and other ions moving across the neuron outer membrane via channels and transporters,” Dani said. “In addition, by chemically blocking stress hormone receptors on neurons, we prevented stress from causing increased drinking behaviour.”

“We gave the rats a chemical called CLP290 to restore the stress-altered circuitry to normal, which in turn corrected the firing of the dopamine neurons,” Dani noted.

Researchers said their findings could be helpful for people suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and pave the way to develop treatment methods for this mental health condition.

As the name suggests, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a terrifying or traumatic event such as a sexual or physical assault. The condition could trigger heavy substance abuse in people with this mental disorder as well as lead to such health issues like depression, anxiety, panic attacks and impulsive behaviour.

“The research has implications for people with PTSD who have an increased risk for over-use of alcohol and drugs,” Dani said.

Dani and his team reported their findings in Neuron.