Dependence on alcohol is a common problem among Americans. Many factors are responsible for the growing alcoholism in the country. Now, a group of researchers have suggested that high estrogen levels in women may be linked to increased sensitivity for alcohol in the brain’s “reward center.” According to a study published online in the journal PLOS ONE in November 2017, the growing alcohol addiction among women can be explained with the help of raised estrogen levels.
The researchers explained that certain neurons in the brain, identified as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), act at elevated levels in response to alcohol consumption among those with high estrogen levels. This response to alcohol is moderated through receptors on the dopamine-emitting neurons in the VTA. Elaborating on the findings, Amy Lasek, one of the co-authors of the study, said, “When estrogen levels are higher, alcohol is much more rewarding. Women may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol or more likely to overindulge during certain stages of their cycle when estrogen levels are higher, or may be more likely to seek out alcohol during those stages.”
Explaining significance of the findings, the authors of the study said different psychological problems may be distinct owing to gender differences. They attributed the palpable distinction to estrogen levels, a female sex hormone. This explains why women show greater proclivity to abuse substances like alcohol and increased likelihood to relapse in reaction to bouts of anxiety and stress. The tendency of VTA neurons to fire more rapidly in response to taking drugs causes people with addiction to seek them even at the expense of the happiness of their families or employment.
Though the researchers could not explain as to why thoughts of alcohol or its consumption raises the firing of dopamine-sensitive neurons in the VTA, they observed the association between estrogen, alcohol and the VTA in female mice. The authors had examined naturally cycling mice that had been allowed to go through their normal estrous cycles similar to the menstrual cycle in women. The mice were closely examined to check when they reached the diestrus phase in the estrous cycle, the estrogen levels were high. Lasek explained how the estrogen levels in mice increase to nearly 10 times in diestrus compared with when they are in estrous phase identified with ovulation and drop in estrogen levels.
Explaining potential cause of alcoholism
A series of experiments on the mice highlighted the link between high estrogen levels and inclination to take alcohol. This also helps explain the possible risk of alcohol addiction in women when estrogen levels are extremely high. “We already know that binge drinking can lead to lasting changes in the brain, and in women, those changes may be faster and more significant due to the interaction we see between alcohol, the VTA and estrogen. Binge drinking can increase the risk of developing alcoholism, so women need to be careful about how much alcohol they drink. They should be aware that they may sometimes inadvertently over-consume alcohol because the area of the brain involved in alcohol reward is responding very strongly,” Lasek added.
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