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What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Drinking?

What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Drinking?

Just like the brain changes once you start drinking and addiction forms, the same thing happens when someone quits. However, it doesn’t just flip back to its pre-addictive state quickly. We’ll discuss more how it changes in today’s blog.


The Effects of Drinking on the Brain

In a study by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that when an alcoholic stops drinking, the brain’s ability to use dopamine changes, altering how the reward system is wired. Like many drugs, alcohol stimulates the production of dopamine, a chemical messenger that activates the brain’s reward center. In alcoholics, this chemical response is significantly reduced researches found in previous studies. This leads to a need to drink more to get the reward — the buzz.


The hypodopaminergic state is when there is a reduction in dopamine levels, even though not much is known about what happens in the reward system when alcoholics try to stop drinking and become sober. Researchers tested this hypothesis by examining the brain tissue of deceased alcoholics. They found that alcoholics had fewer types of dopamine receptors called D1 receptors. These are the sites of the membranes of neuronal cells to which dopamine binds, resulting in these neurons becoming excited. 


Once these receptor sites are reduced, the brain decreases its responsiveness to dopamine, explaining why alcohol fails to satisfy the person. Additionally, fewer dopamine transporter sites were observed in these brains, which enables any dopamine to be sucked back up and recycled. As with D1 receptors, not having these sites is likely to thwart the brain’s ability to use dopamine.


The Process of Addiction

In the same study, the deceased alcoholics showed no reduction in D2 receptor sites, which bind with dopamine to inhibit, instead of excite neurons. Therefore, it makes sense that an alcoholic has to seek stimulation through drinking more continually. The researchers then determined the sequence of the events that led to the situation. 


They used radiography techniques to track dopamine levels in alcohol-dependent rats that were denied alcohol for several weeks. During the first six days, dopamine levels dropped, further confirming the existing theory that acute withdrawal leads to a hypodopaminergic state.


Yet, during this time, the available dopamine receptor and transporter sites were normal. However, three weeks later, the dopamine levels became elevated while the numbers of available receptor and transporter sites fell, thus mimicking the brains of the deceased alcoholics. Less of the dopamine was able to bind to receptor sites with increased levels, so more of it remains unused in the gaps between neurons, called synapses. 


Not surprisingly, at the three-week mark, the rats displayed continued behavioral effects synonymous with alcohol cravings. This study concludes that acute alcohol withdrawal may be associated with a hypodopaminergic state and that sustained abstinence leads to a hyperdopaminergic state. Both of these states are abnormal and explains a dysfunctional reward system in the brain, thus why people are vulnerable to relapse.


Contact Us to Stop Drinking

With these findings explained, hopefully, you or a loved one will reach out and get the care and support needed to overcome addiction and prevent relapse. With a comprehensive treatment program that includes a holistic approach to healing, we believe you can recover from substance abuse and addiction in a safe and caring environment. Take the first step and contact us for more information.