Research reveals neurological differences in the brains of alcoholics
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alcoholics brains
06-08-16 Category: Cognition, Research, Substance Abuse

alcoholics brains

“Globally, the disease burden caused by alcohol is estimated to be roughly as great as the burden caused by the use of all illegal substances together.”

That’s the message from researchers at the University of Eastern Finland. They released a study this spring dissecting the different types of “changes in the brain that make people prone to alcoholism and that are caused by long-term use.”

Similar deviation within the brain

It’s a common misconception that alcoholics can stop drinking at any time but choose to continue simply because they are irresponsible or have weak wills. On the contrary, the world of medicine and psychology has shown that addiction is a brain disease.

Researchers have discovered specific brain variants in alcoholics’ postmortem brain tissue, compared to healthy brains of individuals not diagnosed nor medically treated for alcohol-related issues.

One difference, shared by all alcoholics in the study, is an increase in a steroid hormone that impacts the central nervous system: dehydroepiandrosterone, commonly known as DHEA. Increased concentration of DHEA could explain alcohol tolerance and lowered feelings of pleasure during inebriation.

Alcoholic brains also tested positive for decreased levels of serotonin transporters in brain regions responsible for social cognitive processes and recognition of feelings. This might explain social anxiety behaviors demonstrated in the alcohol dependent.

Two types of alcoholics

Olli Karkkainen, M.S., presented these findings in his doctoral thesis and demonstrated that the brain tissue of alcoholics had two major overarching characteristics. The brain tissues were subsequently divided into categories, similar to diabetic differentiations.

  1. Type 1 alcoholics were noted to have developed alcohol dependence later in life. These individuals were found to be prone to anxiety.

Type 1 alcoholic brain tissue had greater levels of AMPA receptors, which are associated with learning and regulation behavioral models.


  1. Type 2 alcoholics manifest alcohol dependence at a younger age and exhibited impulsiveness and isolating behaviors.

Upon examination, mutations were noticed in the endocannabinoid system, the area that modulates stress responses.

Study implications

Karkkainen noted one limitation of the study was that it is not clear if the brain variations of alcoholics developed after alcohol dependency or if they were already there. The study defined alcoholic brains as coming from individuals who had a medical diagnosis or medical treatment for alcohol-related issues. While the study is instrumental in determining more accurate treatments for types of alcoholics, it raises the question: does the moderate, heavy or social drinker have brain issues as well?

“Moreover, from the medical records it is not possible to rule out the possibility that some of the nonalcoholic controls might have had some alcohol related problems. However, these problems would have been minor compared to the alcohol dependent subjects, because medical records of the nonalcohol dependent controls did not indicate any alcohol-related medical appointments,” Karkkainen explains.

Minor problems don’t rule out the progression of brain issues. Sovereign Health of California treats alcohol and drug addiction from the root of the diseases with nutritionally assisted detox, brain wellness programs as well as cognitive and alternative therapies.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at

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