Why do people like to be drunk? Here’s how alcohol affects the brain.


Alcohol is one of the most abused drugs in the world. Millions of people enjoy the inebriated feeling it produces, especially at social gatherings where a little alcohol seems to make the good times flow.

In one study, over 700 male and female social drinkers were divided into groups of three strangers and asked to drink for 36 minutes. The participants thought the drinks were a prelude to the experiment, but the researchers observed what they were doing at the table.

Initially, the strangers didn’t smile much. But as they consumed their vodka and cranberry drinks, their expressions changed. They not only smiled more, but also surprised each other’s smiles and talked to each other more successively. And they shared more of what the researchers called “golden moments” when the three strangers smiled as one.

It feels like the group is really coming together, and I think they’re part of that kind of social, tipsy experiment,” said Michael Sayette, director of the Alcohol and Tobacco Research Laboratory at the ‘University of Pittsburgh, co-author. of the study.

What’s nice about being tipsy?

Alcohol disinhibits the brain

Drinking alcohol is socially accepted, but “alcohol is like any other drug,” said Jodi Gilman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of neuroscience at the Center for Addiction Medicine in Massachusetts. GeneralHospital. “It affects the brain.”

Ethanol, the remarkably simple chemical compound that gives alcoholic beverages their effervescence, permeates our body and brain cells within minutes of consumption. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of alcohol on the brain. “It has such widespread effects in the brain,” said Jessica Weafer, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Unlike other drugs that affect particular brain regions or act on specific receptors, “alcohol spreads throughout the brain,” making it difficult to study, she said.

Alcohol is widely known to be a depressant, which means it generally suppresses neural activity in the brain. It amplifies the effects of brain chemicals that inhibit neuronal activity – GABA and glycine – by acting on the same receptors to which neurotransmitters bind. At the same time, alcohol inhibits the effects of excitatory chemicals in the brain, producing a dual effect of reducing brain activity.

As most drinkers may know, alcohol has a biphasic effect: initially and in low doses, it produces a buzz where you feel stimulated and uninhibited like you can dance or talk endlessly. , before drowsiness sets in.

This rise and fall of our mind corresponds to the rise and fall of our blood alcohol level.

A look inside the inebriated brain

To see what happens in the brain while intoxicated, the researchers gave willing participants alcohol via intravenous lines while they lay inside fMRI neuroimaging scanners.

Alcohol can disinhibit us by dampening activity in parts of our frontal cortex, which is important for executive control functions such as inhibiting behaviors we don’t want to engage in. By inhibiting our inhibitions, alcohol makes us feel more stimulated.

Being pleasantly buzzed also releases dopamine and increases activity in the striatum, a key brain region associated with rewarding stimuli. Weafer and his colleagues found that neural activity in the striatum correlated with how stimulated alcohol made participants feel.

The participants were given alcohol intravenously, but “they still enjoy it, even though they’re kind of lying in a scanner,” Weafer said.

Alcohol also affects the emotional centers of the brain. In one study, alcohol dampened neural responses in the amygdala to negative facial expressions, which may be one reason alcohol consumption may serve as a social lubricant, said Gilman, who led the study. .

A little liquid courage can help us become less susceptible to rejection or social anxiety. But it could also lead to bar fights or inappropriate behavior when someone has had too much to drink.

Social context also matters

The intoxicating powers of alcohol are not only pharmacological.

“The funny thing about brains is that brains like to hang out with other brains,” Sayette said. “What the brain looks like when you’re drinking varies greatly depending on whether you’re alone or in a social situation. »

Being around other people in a social setting can in itself be intoxicating, and alcohol seems to amplify good feelings. It also signals to others that we’re letting our hair down, which doesn’t require an intoxicating dose to see the effects on mood, Sayette said.

He cites a study from the 1970s that asked how people felt after entering the lab and drinking alone or in a group. When people drank alone, they talked more about physiological effects such as dizziness than mood swings. But when they drank in a social setting, they talked more about feeling elated and not about the bodily effects.

“It’s not distilled down to the extra dopamine release,” Sayette said. “It’s too simplistic.”

How to enjoy, responsibly

Even though studies show that no amount of alcohol is healthy, and alcohol use disorder can be fatal, many may have a few drinks on occasion.

When you’re heading out for a drunken night out, here’s what researchers recommend:

Have a plan. How much are you going to drink? How will you get home? These decisions are easier to make when you are uninhibited.

Eat food in advance. This slows down the metabolism of alcohol. And drink lots of water.

Know your limits. Each person has a different level of tolerance. Slurred speech or loss of coordination can be warning signs of slowing down. “You need to know when you feel like you’ve lost control of your drinking,” Gilman said.

Know why you drink. If you drink to numb negative feelings or in spite of negative consequences, it could be a sign to ask someone for help.

“It’s definitely possible to be a responsible drinker,” Gilman said. “I think a lot of people can have a drink over the holidays and be just fine.”

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? E-mail BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer it in a future column.

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