People with family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol

A new study in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging investigates the brain chemistry of alcohol exposure in people with a range of risk for alcohol use disorder


Philadelphia, May 23, 2018

People with a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) release more dopamine in the brain’s main reward center in response to the expectation of alcohol than people diagnosed with the disorder, or healthy people without any family history of AUD, reports a new study in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

“This exaggerated reward center stimulation by expectation of alcohol may put the [individuals with family history] at greater risk of alcohol use disorder, and could be a risk factor in itself,” said first author Lawrence Kegeles, MD, PhD, of Columbia University.

The study examined a range of risk for AUD, including 34 healthy participants with no family history of AUD, 16 healthy participants with a family history of the disorder (referred to as the family-history positive, or FHP, group), and 15 participants diagnosed with AUD. Dr. Kegeles and colleagues used PET brain scanning to measure the amount of dopamine release in areas of the brain important for reward and addiction. The participants underwent the brain scans after receiving either an alcohol drink—a cocktail of vodka, tonic, and cranberry—or a placebo drink without the vodka. Although the participants didn’t know the order in which they would receive the drinks, if they received the placebo drink first they were cued into expecting the alcohol drink next.

All three groups had similar dopamine release-levels in response to the alcohol, suggesting that alcohol-induced dopamine release is normal in AUD. However, “we found that the FHP participants had a much more pronounced response to the placebo drink than the other groups, indicating that expectation of alcohol caused the FHP group to release more reward center dopamine,” said Dr. Kegeles. The release of dopamine into the reward center is thought to reinforce alcohol consumption and possibly contribute to risk of AUD.

“This research finding exemplifies how advances in imaging brain chemistry using PET scanning can provide new insights into how differences in brain function in people with a family history of alcoholism can explain their own potential for addiction,” said Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

The study did not follow the participants to determine whether the exaggerated dopamine response actually predicted development of AUD at a higher rate, so more studies will be needed to determine if this abnormality really does increase risk of the disorder.

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Notes for editors
The article is "Enhanced striatal dopamine release to expectation of alcohol: a potential risk factor for Alcohol Use Disorder," by Lawrence S. Kegeles, Guillermo Horga, Rassil Ghazzaoui, Rachel Rosengard, Najate Ojeil, Xiaoyan Xu, Mark Slifstein, Ismene Petrakis, Stephanie S. O’Malley, John H. Krystal, and Anissa Abi- Dargham (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2018.03.018). It appears in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Rhiannon Bugno at BPCNNI@UTSouthwestern.edu or +1 214 648 0880. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Gregory Flynn at Gregory.Flynn@nyspi.columbia.edu and Eian Kantor at Eian.Kantor@nyspi.columbia.edu.

The authors’ affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

Cameron S. Carter, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Director of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging is an official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal focuses on studies using the tools and constructs of cognitive neuroscience, including the full range of non-invasive neuroimaging and human extra- and intracranial physiological recording methodologies. It publishes both basic and clinical studies, including those that incorporate genetic data, pharmacological challenges, and computational modeling approaches. www.sobp.org/BPCNNI

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