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Visualizing the alcohol-dependent brain

  • Imaging brain structure

    Part 1 of presentation Visualizing the alcohol-dependent brain

    Extremely powerful imaging techniques now enable us to show and measure structural changes in the brain caused by alcohol.

  • Functional imaging

    Part 2 of presentation Visualizing the alcohol-dependent brain

    Using functional imaging technology we can visualize how certain brain circuits are activated and measure brain networks like the default mode network, which is particularly interesting in terms of psychiatry and addiction.

  • Dopamine, GABA-alpha and other receptors

    Part 3 of presentation Visualizing the alcohol-dependent brain

    Activity and dysregulation of receptors involved in addiction, sedation, ataxia, inhibition and loss of control can now be visualized using PET and PET tracers.

  • PET and MEG imaging

    Part 4 of presentation Visualizing the alcohol-dependent brain

    Opioid receptors involved in craving can be measured with PET, and with this technique we can now show how alcohol induces an increase in release of endorphins. MEG, a new very powerful technique, allows us to measure changes in the EEG up to the high frequencies of 40Hz, and shows differences in electrical activity in the brain associated with different drugs of abuse.

  • Neurobiology of alcohol dependence

    Presentation at ECNP 2013 from Prof. Dr. Anne Lingford-Hughes, Professor of Addiction Biology at Imperial College London, United Kingdom.

    Alcohol dependence is a brain disease with a progressive, and relapsing, course. Increased understanding of the neurobiology of alcohol dependence has led to evidence-based, informed approaches to treatment. Much of our earlier knowledge was derived from animal models which have limitations in recreating the complexities of alcohol misuse in man. However, more recent advances in neuroimaging mean that individuals with alcohol dependence can now be studied directly.

    Alcohol alters the function of many systems in the brain, giving rise to multiple potential therapeutic targets. Dependence on alcohol may begin with selfmedication for anxiety or insomnia, with effects mediated through the GABA–benzodiazepine receptor in the brain’s inhibitory system, and the NMDA receptor of the excitatory glutamatergic system. Exposure to alcohol alters expression and sensitivity of these receptors and correcting this imbalance has been a focus of pharmacotherapy.

    The positive reinforcing effects of alcohol are thought to be mediated by endorphins modulating the dopaminergic mesolimbic system, which is central to reward and motivation. Increased understanding of the altered opioid-dopamine interaction in alcohol dependence has led to the development of opiate antagonists used to prevent relapse by reducing the positive reinforcing effects of alcohol. The role of opioid receptors in modulating impulsivity and activity in the prefrontal cortex, has also been described. 

    In conclusion, greater understanding of the effects of alcohol on the brain has led to important advances in the treatment of alcohol dependence. However, there are many targets still to be fully explored, and broader treatment approaches to be considered.

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