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Why heavy drinkers can’t quit

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


The brains of heavy drinkers, Yale scientists reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in March, are more receptive to a chemical byproduct of alcohol consumption that may make it hard to quit.

Fourteen drinkers—half had had at least eight drinks a week, including four drinks per occasion once a week, and half had had fewer than two per week—were given acetate. The liver normally converts alcohol to acetate, which the brain uses for fuel and may come to prefer over blood sugar. That in turn may promote dependence, because people who stop heavy drinking lose not only the alcohol itself but also the acetate.

“There may be ways to support early sobriety with acetate or drugs that mimic some effects of acetate, and we need to investigate that with respect to effectiveness, safety, cost, and practicality,” said senior author Graeme Mason, Ph.D., professor of diagnostic radiology and psychiatry.