Many people try to deal with unpleasant memories by drinking alcohol, but a new study has suggested that this coping mechanism doesn't work, and may actually worsen certain mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The study, now published online in the journal Translational Psychiatry, found that in animals, alcohol consumption did not help to ease fearful emotional memories, and may have strengthened them. The research was conducted on mice, but the researchers suggested that if the same is also demonstrated in humans, it may lead to more effective PTSD treatments and therapies.

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“Binge drinking or other attempts to use alcohol to self-medicate could be sabotaging any therapy efforts," concluded Norman Haughey, a researcher involved in the project, in a recent statement.

For the study, the team split mice into two groups, with the control group receiving water for two hours and the other receiving alcohol. Afterwards, the mice were purposely given “fearful memories”— a sound followed by an electrical shock. The next day, the mice were played the same sounds, only this time they weren't followed with a shock. They then measured the “fear” behavior of different mice.

Results showed that mice given alcohol the day before froze over 50 percent of the time; in comparison, the sober mice froze only 40 percent of the time. The team concluded that mice given alcohol before the memory retrieval exercise were more prone to fear relapse.

When the team looked at the brains of these mice on a molecular level, they noted that mice mice given alcohol had more of something known as GluR1 receptors with phosphates at the edge of the synapse than did mice given only water. The researchers say that the increased presence of the GluR1 receptors at the synapses in the mice given alcohol may be what caused the increased fear response.

Although these results have yet to be repeated in humans, uncovering a possible reason for the link between increased fear and alcohol consumption could lead to new treatment options for a variety of mental health conditions. For example, according to Haughey, it may be possible to use this new information to improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy in people with PTSD, and help desensitize them to their fearful memories.

Source: Yoo SW, Bae M, Tovar-y-Roma LB, Haughey NJ. Hippocampal encoding of interoceptive context during fear conditioning. Translational Psychiatry . 2017

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