ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS Atlanta) – A new study has found that stimulating brain cells in rodents can be a way to change alcohol drinking behavior.

University at Buffalo researchers trained rats to drink in a way to mimic human behavior.

“By stimulating certain dopamine neurons in a precise pattern, resulting in low but prolonged levels of dopamine release, we could prevent the rats from binging,” Caroline E. Bass, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences explained in a press release.  “The rats just flat out stopped drinking.”

Bass added that the rodents continued to avoid alcohol even after the stimulation of neurons ended.

“For decades, we have observed that particular brain regions light up or become more active in an alcoholic when he or she drinks or looks at pictures of people drinking, for example, but we didn’t know if those changes in brain activity actually governed the alcoholic’s behavior,” Bass said.

The researchers used the emerging technique of optogenetics to treat the rodents.  They activated the dopamine neurons through optogenetic techniques, which uses light instead of electricity to stimulate neurons.

“Electrical stimulation doesn’t discriminate,” Bass explained. “It hits all the neurons, but the brain has many different kinds of neurons, with different neurotransmitters and different functions. Optogenetics allows you to stimulate only one type of neuron at a time.”

Bass, who specializes in using viral vectors to study the brain in substance abuse, used a virus to introduce a gene encoding a light-responsive protein into the animals’ brains for this study. A specific subpopulation of dopamine neurons in the brain’s reward system were activated by the protein.

The findings were published in a November issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience.  The researchers’ findings are the first to show a casual relationship between the release of dopamine in the brain and drinking behaviors of animals.  

Bass’s co-authors are at Wake Forest University.


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