Science now understands why drinking in moderation can be difficult

on 02 January 2020

The challenges faced by frequent drinkers or alcoholics also has implications on how well we develop as life progresses. This is evidenced by the number of adults with an emotionally challenging life, as a consequence of being a relative of a drinker . . . 

Moderation may be harder than you think!

It often puzzles people, perhaps none more so, than the relatives of an alcoholic, why they cannot see how badly alcohol is affecting, not only the life of the victim but also, their loved ones! From an outsiders perspective, perhaps, this is nothing more than us not understanding why we can only view the world of others, through our own lens of life? However, this piece of research sheds an interesting view of the brain mechanisms that allow us to self destruct, even when we have a conscious awareness that it is not a good life strategy?

While this study focuses on alcohol, it would not surprise me, if the same mechanisms played a role in people who overeat or have other self-sabotaging strategies, for example, the predilection to procrastinate? And while I have now come to the view that procrastination is a form of anxiety disorder, it still fits nicely into this blog, because the same neural regions/mechanisms, fear/aversion, are involved.

In this research, the focus is on the link between the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), however, it would have been better if they had been more specific, as in, identifying whether it was the dorsal (dmPFC) or ventral (vmPFC) part of the mPFC, as well as if they had identified if it was the shell or core of the nucleus accumbens? This is important because of the differences in the function of these areas. I have no doubt this would be specified in the full paper, so I can only hope my speculation is relatively accurate? 

I am partially drawn to the dmPFC because of its role in the identity of self. In one study (Brown, Cockett, & Yuan, 2019). actors, when playing a part, were found to suppress the dmPFC, presumably in order to downplay their own sense of self (identity). It would seem reasonable to assume that an alcoholic has some conflict in this area because they often seem to have an awareness of who/what they are and who/what they'd like to be? This inner conflict will likely activate varying levels of the stress response both the mPFC and NAcc play a role in aspects of activating and modulating the stress response. The perceived reward from the early stages of alcohol consumption could be the brain's attempt to override this inner conflict. The link established by this research could explain why certain people cannot turn off this pleasure (conflict resolving) switch?

However, it is also possible that the vmPFC could also be involved because of the way alcohol can cause brain lesions. in one study, patients with lesions to the vmPFC, had impaired capacity to learn from their mistakes, essentially making the same decisions over and over again, despite an awareness of it leading to negative consequences. Effectively choosing an action with an immediate reward and having a blind spot with regards to the future consequences of their actions!

There are also many other brain regions involved, both with the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, e.g. amygdala, BNST (bed nucleus of stria terminalis), thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, ventral tegmental area, cingulate cortex, insular cortex and many parts of the pedunculopontine areas of the pons (of the brainstem) but there are many more areas as well as these, these are merely the big players. Thus why the brain and the way it affects life, is so complex!

The relevance of this to hypnotherapy and to the person with an alcohol issue as well as their loved ones is that it can help to have a better understanding of the complexity of the problem and why logical rational thinking has little impact on the victim's inability to control the problem. It can also help their loved ones come to terms with the fact that the drinker's inability to stop drinking (alcoholic or not), has little or nothing to do with how much they love people, e.g. wife/husband or children, parents, etc. This is important because I have found that many clients who had an alcoholic parent or partner, feel unloved, primarily because they believe that, if they loved me, they wouldn't drink! 

Of course, in reality, relative to one's perspective of self-identity, the feeling associated with the lack of being loved is more of an intrapersonal problem than an interpersonal one. It becomes a problem individually because, at an early age, bonding and love are learned in their relativity to significant others and our own survival. As a species, we are the most useless during the early part of our lives. Many animals are born, get up and start walking, birds fly within a few weeks of birth, yet, with us, it is somewhere in the region of 10 to 14 months before we can even start to walk. So, it is perhaps, this primordial need to connect with and/or depend on others, that misleads as to the actual nature and purpose of the emotion we call love. That is, what it is, where it is and why it is important, as well as, how we can develop and promote it in order to be both self-supporting and fully functional!

It is in the education of this aspect of love, that I focus, on my hypnotherapy practice. In a human sense, love has less to do with the parental or romantic perception we have of it than it has to do with its role in how we flourish, as opposed to merely surviving. Stress (fear) is the primordial emotion of survival and love, is the primordial emotion of wellness and growth. Cell replication is an aspect of the growth process and essential for maintaining wellness! The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is involved in the initiation of the stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) with the relaxation response. And although it is not as simple as I describe, the activation and maintenance of the PNS are as close to creating the presence of the neural correlates of the emotion of love, as we can get! Meditation, relaxation and, fortunately, hypnosis, are excellent ways in which we can bring about this PNS response. Hypnotherapy is an effective and excellent way to inculcate this process occurring outside of our conscious awareness. This is quite natural and anxiety and stress, as disorders, occur this way, albeit in reverse, through the subconscious activation of the SNS, via the HPA axis (fight or flight), stress response. So, in that context, many of the malaise we humans suffer can actually be aided or healed through invoking this natural healing quality of our genome!

It is because of this that hypnotherapy stands out as one of the most effective strategic life management methods there is. Especially because of its ability to align both sides of the dilemma of life, logical and illogical and because it promotes clear thinking and good states of mental wellness. The behaviours that make life challenging are often a result of too much stress, too little sleep and too little by way of clarity! So, to get or take back control of your mind and your life, it makes perfect sense to use a methodology, hypnosis, that addresses the subconscious's role in perpetuating negative, vague and ambiguous states of mind. Hypnosis helps us to create calm relaxing states that make life work better!

If you would like to address any concerns you have in this direction, or, if you just want to make your life feel better, then why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation? Hypnosis gives you the ability to have a good life! 

My objective is to help people understand how and why we become illogically trapped into emotional experiences that may actually be happening but for reasons, we may never have imagined! If you want to know more about Hypnotherapy, why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation?

For more information on the Free Consultation - Go Here or to book your Free Consultation today, you can do so here

The Research:

Compulsive drinking may be due to dysfunction in a specific brain pathway that normally helps keep drinking in check. The results are reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

In the United States, 14 million adults struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) -- formerly known as alcoholism. This disorder makes individuals unable to stop drinking even when they know the potential risks to health, jobs, and relationships.

"Difficulty saying no to alcohol, even when it could clearly lead to harm, is a defining feature of alcohol use disorders," said Andrew Holmes, PhD, senior investigator of the study and Chief of the Laboratory of Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). "This study takes us a step further in understanding the brain mechanisms underlying compulsive drinking."

Many complex parts of behaviour -- emotion, reward, motivation, anxiety -- are regulated by the cortex, the outer layers of the brain that are responsible for complex processes like decision-making. Unlike drugs like cocaine, alcohol has broad effects on the brain, which makes narrowing down a target for therapeutic treatment much more difficult.

"We want to understand how the brain normally regulates drinking, so we can answer questions about what happens when this regulation isn't happening as it should," said Lindsay Halladay, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Santa Clara University, and lead author of the study.

To study how the brain regulates drinking, Halladay and colleagues trained mice in the lab to press a lever for an alcohol reward. Once trained, the mice were presented with a new, conflicting situation: press the same lever for alcohol and receive a light electric shock to their feet, or avoid that risk but forfeit the alcohol. After a short session, most mice quickly learn to avoid shock and choose to give up alcohol.

Halladay's team first used surgically implanted electrodes to measure activity in regions of the cortex during that decision.

"We found a group of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex that became active when mice approached the lever but aborted the lever press," said Halladay. "These neurons only responded when the mice did not press the lever, apparently deciding the risk of shock was too great, but not when mice chose alcohol over the risk of shock. This means that the neurons we identified may be responsible for putting the brakes on drinking when doing so may be dangerous."

The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) plays a role in many forms of decision-making and communicates with many regions of the brain, so Halladay's team explored those external connections.

The team used optogenetics, a viral engineering technique that allowed them to effectively shut down precise brain pathways by shining light in the brain. They shut down the activity of cells in the mPFC that communicate with the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain important for reward, and found that the number of risky lever presses increased.

"Shutting down this circuit restored alcohol-seeking despite the risk of shock," said Halladay. "This raises the possibility that alcohol use disorder stems from some form of dysfunction in this pathway."

Understanding compulsive drinking in some people relies on identifying the neural pathway that keeps drinking in check.

"Current treatments just aren't effective enough," said Halladay. "Nearly half of all people treated for AUD relapse within a year of seeking treatment."

Once scientists understand exactly how the wiring in the brain is different for individuals with AUD compared to those without the disorder, more effective treatments can be developed.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Santa Clara UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Lindsay R. Halladay, Adrina Kocharian, Patrick T. Piantadosi, Michael E. Authement, Abby G. Lieberman, Nathen A. Spitz, Kendall Coden, Lucas R. Glover, Vincent D. Costa, Veronica A. Alvarez, Andrew Holmes. Prefrontal regulation of punished ethanol self-administrationBiological Psychiatry, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.10.030

Cite This Page:

Santa Clara University. "Why is drinking in moderation so difficult for some people?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 December 2019. <>