The First Sip of Alcohol

It turns out your mother may be right—one sip is all it takes.

A new study from the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that the first taste of alcohol has a lasting impact on how your brain learns about and understands drinking, with results that could have monumental impacts for how addiction recovery centers treat and care for alcohol addiction.

The study focuses on the dopamine reward system in the brain, a system that developed to help humans increase their chances of survival. Our brains contain a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter called dopamine, which causes pleasant effects when released into the brain. Whenever we perform activities necessary for life—like eating, socializing, or having sex—small bursts of pleasurable dopamine are released into the brain. Over time, our brains learn to associate activities like eating, socializing, and sex with pleasure, ensuring that we keep engaging in them and increase our chances of survival.

Drugs like alcohol, however, hack this reward system. Whenever a person takes a drug or drinks alcohol, the brain releases floods of dopamine, much more than usual, causing a euphoric high. This high, many times more powerful than the smaller bursts of dopamine which come from more mundane activities, teaches people to continue doing drugs or drinking. The treatment programs at addiction treatment facilities often work on reversing this teaching, by helping people wean themselves off of drugs and resist powerful cravings.

Researchers have pinpointed a neuron, called D1, which is closely involved in the dopamine reward system. This neuron is a dopamine receptor and helps reinforce the pleasurable associations formed when a person drinks alcohol. Researchers hypothesized that a first exposure to alcohol could change D1 neurons and influence a person to drink more in the future.

In the study, researchers used mice that were exposed to two drinking bottles over a 24-hour period. One of the bottles contained water and the other contained 20% alcohol. After the 24 hours were up, the researchers checked for changes in the D1 dopamine receptors in the mice’s brains, and found that the mice that drank the alcohol experienced changes in their D1 neurons, while the mice that drank only water did not. Even mice that had never consumed alcohol before sustained changes to their D1 neurons. These results suggest that even after one drink, the brain, assisted by D1 neurons, learns and remembers the pleasurable effects of alcohol. From the very first drink, alcohol stimulates the dopamine-driven reward system in the brain and primes a person to drink again in the future, based on positive or rewarding memories of the first experience.

Thanks to these results, drug rehab centers can begin developing treatment modalities to counteract the neurological changes and learning occurring in the brain. If you or someone you love is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, please email or call our understanding representatives today to learn about our luxury drug rehab program. Please contact us today to take the first step of a journey toward lifelong healing and sobriety.

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