Alcoholism Rewires Brain to Change Fear Response

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Itís been well-documented for some time now that alcohol abuse slows down reaction speeds and motor functioning. But many did not draw the conclusion that chronic alcohol abuse can cause potential changes to basic brain functioning.

After prolonged alcohol abuse, it has been found that the physical damage can lead to alcoholic dementia, a condition marked by the loss of memory, neurological damage and problems with thinking. Scientists have now found a more subtle change in the brainís wiring, also linked with alcohol abuse.

With long-term exposure to alcohol, one side effect is the inability to rebound from stress. When a normal person is subject to fear, the stress-response kicks in quickly, but it then fades over time when the situation is over. A study has shown that alcoholics do not recover as fast or as well in similar situations. The result of alcoholics having a lack in ability to rebound from trauma greatly increases their chances of suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The study was done on mice, but the technique is well understood and highly applicable to humans. Two groups of mice were trained to fear a certain sound by pairing it with an electric shock. One group received alcohol, and the other didnít. The non-alcohol group learned not to fear the sound after not being shocked upon hearing it. The other group, which was alcohol treated, could not manage to lose the fear. Examining the brains of each group showed that there were actual changes in the way that the neurons were connected.

The interesting thing with humans is that stress might cause a person to drink more often as a way to relieve it. But those who experience chronic fear, such as in a war or domestic violence, and drink excessively, are only setting the fear response more deeply. They will carry the incident past the point of when it should have faded. The danger with this is the vicious cycle created by drinking to relieve the stress. By combating fear or pressure with alcohol, these people are actually extending the effects of those stressors. This can often cause people to drink more over time, since just one or two glasses may not be enough to obviate the negative emotions. Needless to say, the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage done to the brain is. This in turn, will lead to further problems combating fear, stress, anxiety, and the many other negative emotions which were remedied by drinking alcohol.

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