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Hangovers Help Us Stop Drinking… But Why?

What separates a social drinker from someone who becomes an alcoholic?

According to a Dr. Sharif Taha, professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah, the answer to this question likely lies within a particular region of the brain that encourages regulation of alcohol consumption.

Dr. Taha studied a regional of the brain called the lateral habenula, which is thought to regulate reward-and-punishment behavior. In the study, researchers impaired the lateral habenula in a group of rats and then observed the change in the consumption behavior when they were given access to a solution containing 20% alcohol over several weeks.

The implication is that this particular region of the brain [lateral habenula] encourages individuals to learn from negative experiences associated with consumption.Although the control group—in which the lateral habenula was left to function normally—curbed consumption over time due to the negative effects of alcohol intoxication (such as hangover and sickness), the group with inactivated lateral habenula actually increased consumption of alcohol despite of the adverse effects. The implication is that this particular region of the brain encourages individuals to learn from negative experiences associated with consumption.

Reward v. Averse Effects
According to study co-author Andrew Haack, this illustrates “the rewarding effects of drinking alcohol compet[-ing] with the aversive effects. When you take the aversive effects away, which is what we did when we inactivated the lateral habenula, the rewarding effects gain more purchase… and drives up drinking behavior.”

To further illustrate this finding, researchers devised a follow-up test: Both groups of rats were given a sweet-tasting juice and then injected with alcohol to induce hangover upon consumption of the juice. The control rats began to avoid the juice as they associated it with feelings of sickness; however, the rats with inactivated lateral habenula continued to consume the juice despite the sickness.

The results of the study have profound implications for human consumption behavior and pose very interesting questions for future research. Does the lateral habenula encourage abstinence in the face of hangover? Would impairment of this part of the human brain prevent a person from learning from the negative effects of intoxication? If so, could someone with a naturally low-functioning lateral habenula be physiologically predisposed for alcoholism?

Though preliminary, these findings may make diagnosis, treatment, and possibly even prevention of substance abuse disorders more effective. Additionally, it may provide us with a new level of understanding of those who may struggle with substance abuse due to biological susceptibility beyond their control.

The University of Utah’s study results were published in PLOS One.

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