Genetics, stress and environmental cues influence relapse drinking

  • A substantial number of people who undergo treatment for alcoholism will relapse.
  • A compilation of rodent studies has found numerous reasons for alcohol relapse.
  • Alcohol deprivation, stress and environmental cues can all promote relapse drinking.
  • Genetic susceptibility and neuronal changes produced by chronic drinking also contribute.

What is colloquially and sometimes humorously referred to as "falling off the wagon" is, in fact, a serious problem for individuals who have undergone treatment for alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Alcohol relapse, with an emphasis on its underlying behavioral and neurobiological causes, was the focus of a workshop given during the June 2000 Research Society on Alcoholism meeting in Denver. The workshop proceedings are published in the February issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

William J. McBride, professor of neurobiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and lead author of the workshop compilation, noted four key findings. "First," he said, "chronic alcohol drinking produces long-lasting effects in the brain that persist in the absence of alcohol and promote alcohol relapse drinking. Some of these long-lasting alterations occur within the dopamine and serotonin systems that are known to regulate alcohol drinking. Third, brain systems that promote relapse drinking are triggered by stress and cues previously associated with alcohol drinking. Fourth, individuals with a genetic background of susceptibility to high alcohol drinking are more likely to relapse."

Workshop data were gathered from several different studies of alcohol relapse using rodent models. One study introduced prolonged alcohol consumption, followed by repeated periods of alcohol deprivation, to test for an alcohol deprivation effect (ADE). ADE is similar to the binge drinking that can occur after a long period of abstinence. Another study used operant techniques


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