New insights into treating alcohol addiction

Disabling specific brain cells can greatly reduce cravings for alcohol.

05/14/2020 | 3:23 PM

VU Amsterdam PhD candidate Esther Visser, working in the Memory Circuits (Center for Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research) team of Michel van den Oever, carried out research into how memories of alcohol are registered in the brain. The results were published this week in Science Advances.

Strong urge
Treating alcohol addiction is hindered by relapses among patients, which sometimes occurs after years of non-drinking. Such relapses are often caused by alcohol-related environmental factors (bars or alcohol advertisements) that bring memories of alcohol to the surface. As a result, people feel a strong urge to drink alcohol again.

Reminders of alcohol
In this study, Visser studied in mice how the brain stores such long-term associations between alcohol and environmental factors. The researchers found that a small percentage (around 6%) of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex become very active when alcohol is consumed. By deactivating these very brain cells, they were able to significantly reduce the rate of relapse following a long period of abstinence. This small group of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex stores the memories of alcohol, thereby forming a long-term memory trace. The discovery of this memory trace is a possible important new basis for developing a treatment method for alcohol addiction.