Page last updated: Friday, March 18, 2005
Brain stimulation in alcoholics
Brains of heavy drinkers have been shown to "light up" when pictures of alcohol are shown to them. Researchers found that a high tech. brain scanner revealed the urges that can push recovering alcoholics off the wagon, with the bigger the craving, the more electrical impulses lighting up in the brains’ ‘pleasure centre.’ Dr. Derek Hermann of the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany hopes that the new technique will make it easier for alcoholics to get the correct treatment.

The 2 year German research project was led by Professor Andreas Heinz, of Berlin’s Charite Teaching Hospital and involved 60 alcoholic subjects who had dried out for a period of between 5 days and 3 weeks. They were put into a functional magnetic resonance imager and then photographs were taken of their brain when they saw photos of alcoholic drinks. The ‘reward-centre’ part of the brain was activated when the alcoholic subjects looked at a drink, whereas non-alcoholics did not have the reaction of the alcoholics. The research is not yet complete but there was a significant difference.

Professor Heinz commented: "This part of the brain is important for motivation. It’s activity is subconscious and creates desire." He believes the research will mean easier and faster treatment for alcoholics. "The work so far suggests that the technique can provide a method of seeing the level of alcoholism in a person", he said.

A further study published in the journal Stroke, found that elderly people who drink heavily appear to have more atrophy (shrinkage) of the brain than those who drink lightly or not at all, with moderate drinkers having overall healthier brains than non-drinkers.

Dr.K. J. Mukamal et al of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston studied 3,660 men and women over 65 who had brain M.R.I.’s taken between 1992-1994. The research found that the more elderly people drank the more their brains atrophied and the process could result in problems such as reduced hand strength and difficulty rising from a chair. Heaviest drinkers (>15 or more drinks/week) were 41% less likely than abstainers to have so called silent strokes (occur unnoticed, but can interfere with everyday tasks). Among light drinker (1-6 drinks/week) significantly fewer strokes were seen, however light drinkers did show more brain atrophy than abstainers, but less than heavy drinkers.

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