Brain circuit that controls compulsive drinking of alcohol has been discovered in mice, offering hope of a cure for alcoholism

  • US researchers had set out to discover how alcohol can alter the mouse brain
  • However, they found that initial neural activity could predict which got addicted
  • By turning areas of the mice’s brains on or off compulsion levels can be changed
  • The findings may one day pave the way to a cure for alcoholism in humans

A brain circuit that controls the compulsive drinking of alcohol has been discovered in mice, offering a hope of one day finding a cure for alcoholism in humans.

Scientists have long sought to understand why some people are prone to develop drinking problems while others are not.

The team’s discovery in mice, if translated to humans, may provide doctors a way to reveal whether someone is likely to become a compulsive drinking later in life.

Alcoholism is a chronic brain disease in which an individual drinks compulsively — often accompanied by negative emotions.

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A brain circuit that controls the compulsive drinking of alcohol has been discovered in mice, offering a hope of one day finding a cure for alcoholism in humans (stock image)

Whereas previous studies have focused on examining the brain after a drinking disorder develops, the researchers from the Salk Institute in California set out to prove that brain circuits can make some people more likely to be alcoholics.

‘We’ve found for the first time a brain circuit that can accurately predict which mice will develop compulsive drinking — weeks before the behaviour starts,’ said lead researcher and neuroscientist Kay Tye.

‘This research bridges the gap between circuit analysis and alcohol/addiction research, and provides a first glimpse at how representations of compulsive drinking develop across time in the brain.’

‘We initially sought to understand how the brain is altered by binge drinking to drive compulsive alcohol consumption,’ said paper author and pharmacologist Cody Siciliano of the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

‘In the process, we stumbled across a surprising finding where we were actually able to predict which animals would become compulsive based on neutral activity during the very first time they drank.’

The researchers created a test — known as a ‘binge-induced compulsion task’ — to examine how susceptibility towards alcohol consumption interacts with experience to produce compulsive drinking in mice.

They observed that mice could be sorted into three groups, that of low drinkers, high drinkers and compulsive drinkers.

Unlike the first two groups, the compulsive drinkers showed an insensitivity to negative consequences.

The scientists used a special imaging technique to chart the nature of the cells and brain regions of interest before, during and after drinking

The scientists then used a special imaging technique to chart the nature of the cells and brain regions of interest before, during and after drinking.

They looked specifically at neuron activity in two regions of the brain involved in behavioural control and responding to adverse events — the medial prefrontal cortex and the periaqueductal grey matter, respectively.

They found that the development of compulsive alcohol drinking was related to communication patterns between these two brain regions — and that such can serve as a biomarker for predicting compulsive drinking in the future.

The researchers also used a technique dubbed ‘optogenetics’ to manipulate the activity of the neural pathway using light.

By turning the brain circuit on or off, the scientists were able to either increase compulsive drinking tendencies, or reduce it.

‘Now, we can look into the brain and find activity patterns that predict if mice will become compulsive drinkers in the future, before the compulsion develops,’ added Professor Tye.

‘We do not know if this brain circuit is specific to alcohol or if the same circuit is involved in multiple different compulsive behaviours,’ she added.

These, she explained, might include ‘those related to other substances of abuse or natural rewards, so that is something we need to investigate.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Science. 


Alcoholism is the most severe form of alcohol abuse and involves the inability to manage drinking habits.

It is organised into three categories: mild, moderate and severe. Each category has various symptoms and can cause harmful side effects.

If left untreated, any type of alcohol abuse can spiral out of control. 

Individuals struggling with alcoholism often feel as though they cannot function normally without alcohol.

This can lead to a wide range of issues and impact professional goals, personal matters, relationships and overall health.

Sometimes the warning signs of alcohol abuse are very noticeable. Other times, they can take longer to surface. 

When alcohol addiction is discovered in its early stages, the chance for a successful recovery increases significantly.

Common signs of alcoholism include:

  • Being unable to control alcohol consumption
  • Craving alcohol when you’re not drinking
  • Putting alcohol above personal responsibilities
  • Feeling the need to keep drinking more
  • Spending a substantial amount of money on alcohol
  • Behaving differently after drinking

Short-term effects of alcohol abuse can be just as dangerous as long-term effects. 

For instance, drinking can impact your reaction time, causing you to have slow reflexes and coordination.

That’s why drinking and driving is extremely dangerous. Getting behind the wheel of a car can alter your perception of speed and distance, putting yourself and others at risk.

Several short-term effects of alcohol abuse may produce:

  • Slow reaction time
  • Poor reflexes
  • Reduce brain activity
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Restlessness

Additionally, consuming too much alcohol can affect your long-term health. Some side effects may lay dormant for years before they surface.

Because of this, professional medical care is required for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Long-term health conditions caused by alcohol:

  • Brain defects 
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes complications
  • Heart problems
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Vision damage
  • Bone loss 

Treatment for Alcoholism 

There are different forms of treatment available based on frequency and severity of alcohol abuse. 

Recovering from alcohol addiction is a process that continues long after rehab. 

It takes commitment to practice and apply the techniques you learn in rehab, counseling, support groups and other types of therapy.

Although every individual will have their own recovery plan that’s tailored to their specific needs, treatment generally follows a structure.

Alcohol treatment is broken into three sections, consisting of:


The first stage in alcohol addiction recovery is detoxification. This phase should be completed with the help of medical professionals due to the potential for serious, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Many times, individuals are given a medication to help alleviate the painful side effects of a withdrawal.


There are two types of rehabilitation that help treat alcoholism: inpatient rehab and outpatient rehab. Inpatient rehabs are intensive treatment programs that require you to check into a facility for a certain period of time, usually 30, 60 or 90 days. Outpatient rehab allows individuals to participate in a recovery program while continuing with their daily life. Talk with your doctor about treatment options to determine which form of recovery will best fit your needs.


The recovery process doesn’t end with the completion of rehab. Long-term sobriety requires ongoing therapy and may entail support groups, counseling and other recovery resources. These will make sure you maintain sobriety and continue on a happy, healthy path for months and years to come.

Source: Alcohol Rehab Guide


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