As someone who has always had an interest in the social sciences, especially those dealing with addiction and compulsive behavior, I am intrigued by the role that the brain plays in substance abuse, especially alcoholism. While it has been discussed in class that most characteristics are influenced by both genes and the environment, I still wonder which plays the larger part in alcoholism, a person’s surroundings or their genetic information. Specifically in this paper, however, I plan to focus on how alcoholism affects the brain, and conversely, what role the brain plays in the disease.
Alcoholism is a disease that is mental with physical effects, and is often characterized as a “mental obsession that causes a physical compulsion to drink;” the mental obsession is often described as being similar to when a song gets stuck in someone’s head, but instead of being a catchy tune, it is a voice saying “drink” over and over again. In essence, it is like a broken record that cannot be controlled by the person. Alcoholism is so complex, due to the fact that “the alcoholic's mental obsession with alcohol is much more subtle than a song playing in his mind. In fact, he may not even know it's there. All he knows is he suddenly has an urge to take a drink -- a physical compulsion to drink” (2). The person, thinking that the compulsion will be alleviated by succumbing to it, will drink to make it go away; however, in all actuality, the compulsion will become worse after the person ingests alcohol (3).
Alcoholism is believed to be caused by many factors. One is the environment that a person is surrounded with during any stage of his life, not necessarily during early stages of development. A person can start drinking at a young age, which could occur if alcohol is easily accessible in their home, or a person could start drinking later in life, due to his group of friends or factors of stress in his life. Another cause of alcoholism is the genetic makeup of a person; however, it is still debated which genes are actually involved. MedlinePlus cites:
“A person who has an alcoholic parent is more likely to become an alcoholic than a person without alcoholism in the immediate family. Research suggests that certain genes may increase the risk of alcoholism but which genes or how they exert their influence is controversial. Psychological factors may include a need for relief of anxiety, ongoing depression, unresolved conflict within relationships, or low self-esteem. Social factors include availability of alcohol, social acceptance of the use of alcohol, peer pressure, and stressful lifestyles” (3).
There are many causes of alcoholism, and, like everything we have discussed in class, it is a culmination of the experiences a person has had in his life, on both the genetic and social levels.
While it is widely acknowledged that alcoholism is affected by the brain, scientists are still unsure about which parts of the brain are involved. According to EurikAlert:
“Although prior research has looked at brain activity and alcoholism, much of it has focused on cortical activity as a marker for impulsivity among alcoholics. A new study examines measures of brain activity in the frontal regions of the brain, thought to reflect individual differences in emotionality, an important aspect of personality. The discovery of an imbalance of activity in the right and left frontal areas may indicate a dysregulation in brain systems that govern emotion and motivation” (1).
Alcoholism can affect many functions of the body, such as hand-eye coordination and the ability to make decisions, but its affects on a person’s emotions are often overlooked. People suffering from alcoholism often have similar brain activity to those with depression, which can result in similar emotional constipation of sorts. It was also discovered that alcoholism occurs hand-in-hand with other disorders, such as major depressive disorder (MDD) or antisocial personality disorder (ASPD); this creates a difference of emotional behavior between alcoholics who also suffer from another disorder, versus those who do not. The only way to deal with the discrepancies between the two groups is to observe each group separately, not as a larger entity. What this means is that they must be observed not simply as alcoholics, but as alcoholics either with or without other mental disorders. In the brain, a difference has been noted between activity in the front left and front right regions. The benefit of pinpointing which parts of the brain directly correlate with alcoholism can help with the identification “vulnerability markers” for the disease, which will, in turn, give everyone a better understanding of why alcoholism occurs and who is already pre-disposed to develop it (1). If a person has the A1 allele of DRD2 TaqI polymorphism, which can be present in human dopamine, there is a “small but significant tendency towards addiction to opiates and endorphin releasing drugs like alcohol” (4). The gene does not determine whether or not a person will definitely be an alcoholic, but it lays the ground work for a possible problem later in life. It is also believed that the disease is caused by an imbalance “of some chemicals in your brain, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits impulsiveness, and glutamate, which excites the nervous system. Alcohol also raises the levels of dopamine in the brain, which is associated with the pleasurable aspects of drinking alcohol” (5). When a person ingests alcohol, the chemicals in the drink react with and change the levels of certain chemicals in the brain; these new levels can become the norm if a certain amount of alcohol is taken in for a certain amount of time.
Alcoholism causes a person to throw logic to the wind; a very rational person who is otherwise in control of her life can be a slave to the desire to drink. Those who suffer from the disease are very much mentally affected by the cravings and the rollercoaster ride of emotions they produce, as well as the physical manifestations, which can result in “cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, polyneuropathy, alcoholic dementia, heart disease, increased chance of cancer, nutritional deficiencies, sexual dysfunction, and death from many sources” (4). It is a disease that can affect anyone, regardless of personal beliefs, race, gender, or age. The span of the genetic control is still debated, and the brain’s full influence is still unknown. What is known is that the brain, while enveloped in mystery, plays the largest role in alcoholism, be it in the way a person is genetically encoded, or how the person reacts to factors in his environment.
1. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-11/ace-mba112006.php 
2. http://alcoholism.about.com/cs/info2/a/aa022697.htm 
3. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000944.htm 
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoholism