October 5, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 311 — A brain pathway that controls binge drinking

Alcohol use disorder affects more than 2 billion people worldwide, and fewer than 10 percent of people who seek treatment receive an FDA-approved therapy. The need to develop new, effective and widely accessible therapies is of the utmost importance.

Addiction researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine are trying to bridge that gap through their studies into binge drinking.

A report recently published in eLife shows how the researchers, led by Pharmacology and Toxicology Professor Brady Atwood, have identified a new pathway in the brain that controls binge alcohol drinking behavior.

Using lab models, Atwood and his team explored a brain pathway that connects the anterior insular cortex, which produces awareness of bodily states, to the dorsolateral striatum, which controls habitual behaviors.

Atwood says the study is impactful because his team is the first to demonstrate that this pathway controls behavior of any kind. He says they showed that over time, continued binge alcohol drinking produces changes in this brain pathway that gives it the ability to control drinking, a function it did not have prior to the binge drinking.

The researchers found that activating this pathway in experienced drinkers reduces their alcohol consumption, which Atwood says implies therapeutic interventions that target this pathway may be a way to combat problematic alcohol drinking that can lead to addiction and potentially death.

He says their work suggests that dysfunction of certain neurons may be indicative of pathological alcohol intake that correlates with higher risk for binge drinking. This information could be leveraged as a biomarker in a clinical setting to help physicians define patient populations and match them with more effective therapies.

The researchers also found that there appear to be differences in how alcohol affects this brain pathway in males and females -- a discovery that will require much additional exploration.