Researchers believe they have identified the area of the brain that determines a preference for alcohol, perhaps the first step in an eventual treatment for alcoholism.
In a study published Monday in the Society for Neuroscience journal eNeuro, researchers said they were trying to determine why some people can consume alcohol every day without developing dependence while less frequent drinkers develop a dependence.
The researchers, from the University of Massachusetts, offered a test group of rats intermittent access to a 20 percent alcohol solution, then trained them to self-administer both 10 and 20 percent solutions of alcohol, as well as a sugar solution as a reward. They then were able to determine which rats were high or low alcohol consumers and divide them accordingly.
The researchers monitored the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) activity in rats as they consumed the alcohol. The OFC is the brain region associated with impulsivity, reward and decision-making. They found OFC activity in spiked in rats that preferred to consume higher levels of alcohol when they consumed it than in rats who did not prefer it as much.
The researchers said the strength of the OFC activity was directly linked to how much the rats preferred drinking the stronger alcohol solution, suggesting the OFC is the portion of the brain that encodes individual preferences for alcohol.
The researchers stressed that further human research was needed to determine whether these findings would translate exactly to people. And they have not yet determined the root developmental, environmental and genetic causes driving these preferences for alcohol.
But they said understanding the underlying mechanisms in the brain had the potential to target more precisely what happens when a person has problems controlling alcohol consumption.