Alcohol addiction is difficult to overcome, and even those who seek professional help often face high relapse rates. A new study, however, claims to have reversed alcohol dependency in rats by “switching off” the neurons in the brain associated with the addition, and they say the same may be possible in humans.

In the study, now published online in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists found that injecting a compound that inactivates or “turns off” a specific area of brain cells in the amygdala eliminated the urge to drink in alcohol-dependent rats. In addition, the rats also experienced fewer withdrawal symptoms, and the effects lasted for two weeks, the entire duration of the study, Live Science reported.

According to study researcher Olivier George in a recent statement, the results were so dramatic that it was almost as though the rats had “forgot they were dependent [on alcohol]. These results may also be a step forward in a pharmaceutical approach to alcohol addiction."

“It is very challenging to target such a small population of neurons in the brain, but this study helps to increase our knowledge of a part of the brain that is still a mystery,” study first author Giordano de Guglielmo said in a statement.

Interestingly, the same compound did not have as dramatic results on rats that binge drank yet weren’t addicted to alcohol. Although it did reduce their compulsion to drink, the results lasted only for a day. This finding may help to identify the mechanism in the brain necessary to transition from binge drinking to alcohol dependency. The results also help to show the clear difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency.

For example, a recent report for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that 90 percent of Americans who drink heavily are not actually considered alcoholics. The study also found clear socioeconomic differences between people who abused alcohol and people who were clinical alcoholics. For example, alcoholism was most common among respondents with an annual household income of less than $25,000, while binge drinking was most common among those with an annual household income of $75,000 or more.

Source: de Guglielmo G, George O, et al. Recruitment of a Neuronal Ensemble in the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala Is Required for Alcohol Dependence. Journal of Neuroscience . 2016

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