Stress Hormone Key to Alcohol Dependence

Addiction is almost always about trying to fix feeling bad.

Posted Jan 27, 2010

Most people who haven't experienced addiction first-hand think that getting hooked is all about pleasure. Something makes you feel so good that you'll do anything to get more of that bliss.

In reality, addiction is almost always about trying to fix feeling bad. Whether your drug is food, shopping, sex, cigarettes, or alcohol, it's the lows that make you crave it the most. Even if you don't have a serious problem with addiction, you surely have one or two temptations whose siren songs sound sweetest when you're under the most stress.

A new study from neuroscientists at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, CA, provides new evidence that getting your stress under control may play a key role in overcoming addictions.

The study participants were not your typical stressed-out addicts-no Celebrity Rehab castoffs or smokers trying to finally quit the habit. They were rats the researchers had carefully cultivated to be addicted to alcohol. What they found was that suppressing a stress hormone, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), made alcoholic rats drink less, and even prevented non-alcoholic rats from developing alcohol dependence.

The researchers first created the rodent equivalent of alcoholism by routinely exposing the rats to alcohol vapors (whether hanging out in a bar can have a similar effect, I can't say). They also had the regular opportunity to drink an alcoholic beverage. Over time, the rats consumed more and more alcohol, and showed withdrawal effects when it was not available. In other word, they met criteria for substance dependence.

The researchers then gave the rats a CRF-antagonist-that is, a chemical that counteracts the effects of the stress hormone in the brain and body. With the stress hormone blocked, the rats consumed much less alcohol.

This is a surprising finding if you subscribe to the giving-in-to-feel-good model of addiction. The CRF antagonist shouldn't have reduced the pleasure of getting tipsy. And it certainly shouldn't have made consuming alcohol unpleasant (the way that another drug for reducing alcohol intake, antabuse, does).

CRF is a hormone produced in the brain that triggers feelings of anxiety. It also stimulates the body's fight-or-flight response. Blocking its effects is the equivalent of a massive stress reduction for the lab rats. The result was less interest in, and dependence on, the alcohol.

The researchers went one step further to see whether the CRF antagonist could prevent rats from developing an alcohol addiction in the first place. That's exactly what happened. The alcohol-vapor exposure did not create withdrawal and dependence in new rats whose stress hormones had been blocked.

What this study shows is an elegantly constructed (although highly artificial) demonstration that the brain and body's stress response creates a vulnerability to addiction. Reducing that stress response reduces dependence.

Will this stress model hold up in the real world of more complicated human addictions? That is still to be determined. And the CRF antagonist used in the study ("antalarmin," you gotta love how scientists or marketing teams choose the names for these drugs) is not widely tested on or used for humans.

So the direct applications of this study are far from obvious. But for my money, I'd bet on stress-reduction interventions (whether psychological, pharmaceutical, or spiritual) as the foundation for any behavior change, and the best way to help develop resilience against future addictions.

Study details:
Roberto, M., Cruz, M.T., Gilpin, N.W., et al. Corticotropin Releasing Factor-Induced Amygdala Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid Release Plays a Key Role in Alcohol Dependence. Biological Psychiatry. 2010 Jan 6. [Epub ahead of print]