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Chronic drinking increases brain levels of stress hormones which impact on recovery

28 September 2010

Preclinical research from the National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King's, has found that chronic drinking produces high brain levels of a stress hormone which could be involved in the cognitive deficits seen in many alcoholics.

In a review published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, authors described how brain levels of the hormone cortisol were raised after chronic alcohol consumption. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress, but new research has shown it can be made in the brain as well. The research described in the review showed rises in the brain concentrations could result in cognitive deficits which could decrease the patient's ability to engage with treatment.

Chronic alcoholism is a disabling addictive disorder, characterised by compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcohol despite the negative effects it has on health, relationships and social standing. Alcohol damages almost every organ of the body including the brain where it causes memory loss and impairs decision-making and attention span.

Cortisol plays an important role in the regulation of emotion, learning, attention, energy utilization, and the immune system.   The research showed that high brain levels of this hormone are present after chronic alcohol consumption and that these continue to be elevated during withdrawal from alcohol and after long periods of abstinence even though the blood levels are not higher than normal.

Senior author Professor Hilary Little, National Addiction Centre, IoP at King's said: 'The most important questions for research and treatment are how can we prevent the memory deficits in alcoholics and why alcoholics so frequently relapse after many months of abstinence. Our evidence shows that brain concentrations of cortisol remain raised for long periods after alcohol withdrawal, even after blood concentrations return to normal levels. Drugs targeting the effects of cortisol in the brain might reduce the cognitive impairments that interfere with treatment and may even reduce the chances of relapse drinking.'

The research is currently continuing at the Institute of Psychiatry with a clinical trial in alcoholics of a drug that prevents the effects of cortisol.

The research is in collaboration with University of Liverpool, University of Bern and the University of Kentucky and can be found here:

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