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Using PET scan technology to study alcohol's effects on the brain

  • Alcohol has both sedative-like and stimulant-like effects on the brain.
  • Benzodiazepines, which have a sedative effect, are used as sleeping pills.
  • Alcohol and benzodiazepines both facilitate brain GABA activity, which is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter system in the brain, yet they have different behavioral effects.
  • This study compares the effects of alcohol with those of benzodiazepines.

Researchers know that alcohol, in addition to facilitating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity, also affects other neurotransmitter systems in the brain. It is likewise clear that alcohol, which has both sedative-like and stimulant-like effects, has addictive qualities. Benzodiazepines (used as sleeping pills) -- which primarily facilitate GABAergic activity in the brain -- have mainly sedative effects, but are also addictive. In order to differentiate amongst the brain circuits involved in the sedative versus the stimulant properties of alcohol, a study published in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research compares alcohol's effects on the brain with those of a benzodiazepine drug called lorazepam (commercially known as Ativan).

"We wanted to investigate which areas of the brain were responsible for the stimulant -- versus the sedative -- effects of alcohol because these two effects appear to contribute to the abuse of alcohol in different subject populations," said Nora D. Volkow, associate laboratory director of Life Sciences, Brookhaven National Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy and senior author of the study. "In general, alcohol's stimulant effects are associated with its reinforcing effects, whereas its sedative effects interfere with its abuse; yet the sedative effects of alcohol are desirable in anxious individuals."

"People often think of alcohol as having a depressant effect," explained Gene-Jack Wang, chairman of the Medical Department, Brookhaven National Laboratory
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Contact: Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
volkow@bnl.gov
631-344-3335
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
21-Jun-2000


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