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Behavioral sensitization: A new perspective on alcoholism

  • Alcoholics may drink because they get a "bigger bang" each time they drink.
  • This phenomenon is known as "behavioral sensitization."
  • Behavioral sensitization is the opposite of tolerance; it is even known as "reverse tolerance."
  • A neurochemical called MK-801 may block alcohol's sensitizing effects.
One of the ways by which people are believed to develop alcoholism is called "behavioral sensitization" to the effects of alcohol. This is another way of saying that each time someone drinks, they may find the alcohol more rewarding. In a recent study published in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers explained how they may have found a way to "block" the increasingly rewarding effects of alcohol.

"What we've tried to show in this study," said Rosana Camarini, the study's lead author who is conducting post-doctoral research in neurology at the University of California San Francisco, "is that it may be possible to block behavioral sensitization to alcohol by using NMDA receptor antagonists. The specific one we studied is called MK-801."

Alcohol affects virtually every organ system in the body and alters the activity of most major neurochemicals. Alcohol's effects on the glutamate system are of particular interest to researchers. Glutamate acts as one of the brain's endogenous (made within the body) excitatory systems. A subtype of glutamate receptors, the n-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, is highly sensitive to low doses of alcohol. Evidence indicates that alcohol may interact directly with the NMDA receptor complex. Indeed, NMDA receptors may be involved in sensitization to, tolerance of, and physical dependence on a variety of drugs, including opiates, nicotine, antidepressants and alcohol. NMDA receptor antagonists - in this case, MK-801 - appear to be able to "block" some of the pleasing effec
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Contact: Rosana Camarini, Ph.D.
rosanac@itsa.ucsf.edu
510-985-3924
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
13-Mar-2000


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