Drinking alcohol releases endorphins in areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward, according to a study led by researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
The finding marks the first time that endorphin release in the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex in response to alcohol consumption has been directly observed in humans.
Endorphins are small proteins with opiate-like effects that are produced naturally in the brain.
"This is something that we've speculated about for 30 years, based on animal studies, but haven't observed in humans until now," said lead author Jennifer Mitchell, PhD, clinical project director at the Gallo Center and an adjunct assistant professor of neurology at UCSF. "It provides the first direct evidence of how alcohol makes people feel good."
The discovery of the precise locations in the brain where endorphins are released provides a possible target for the development of more effective drugs for the treatment of alcohol abuse, said senior author Howard L. Fields, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology and Endowed Chair in Pharmacology of Addiction in Neurology at UCSF and director of human clinical research at the Gallo Center.
The study appears on January 11, 2012, in Science Translational Medicine