Binge drinking is alarmingly common among U.S. adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) binge drinking is actually the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use in the nation. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute and Alcoholism as being a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, to 0.08 grams percent (or higher). On average, this limit is met when men drink 5 or more drinks, or women consume 4 or more drinks, within a time span of 2 hours.
The Truth about Binge Drinking in the U.S.
National surveys have shown that approximately 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drink around 4 times per month, consuming an average of 8 drinks per binge. Binge drinking is more common among young adults aged 18-34, but is reported more frequently amongst binge drinkers aged 65 and older – who admit to binge drinking an estimated 5 to 6 times a month. Moreover, of the total amount of U.S. adults who have been classified as drinking excessively, 92% report binge drinking within the past 30 days. Unfortunately this lends itself to some even more startling rates. Namely that around 90% of alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 is in the form of binge drinking, and that more than half of the total alcohol consumed by adults within the U.S. is consumed via high-volume drinking in a short period of time.
Why Do People Binge Drink?
But why do we feel inclined to binge drink? What causes us to engage in this potentially life-risking behavior? The problem is that individual reasons for binge drinking vary widely from person to person. Why we binge drink could be dependent on a number of factors, including our specific life circumstances. However, studies have shown that there are certain common brain circuits that are activated when we binge. New neuroscientific research reveals that there may be clues in the brain which explain why people tend to overindulge with alcohol. In turn, what this means is that researchers may have discovered a circuit between two brain regions which, when turned off, can reduce instances of binge drinking.
The Neuroscience of Binge Drinking
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined two areas of the brain – the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the extended amygdala. These areas have been implicated in binge drinking behavior in past studies, but this is the first time that these two areas have been recognized as a single functional circuit. The amygdala has already been associated with stress and anxiety. Conversely, the VTA is a pleasure center which responds to the rewarding properties of certain natural reinforcers. These can include certain benign substances like food (in moderation) but also more dangerous, highly addictive substances like drugs and alcohol. UNC researchers discovered that these two regions are connected by long projection neurons which produce a substance known as corticotropin releasing factor, or CRF.
This study is also the first to provide direct evidence that inhibiting a circuit between these two regions may protect against binge drinking. Commenting on this finding, lead study author Todd Thiele explained that “The puzzle is starting to come together, and is telling us more than we ever knew about before. We now know that two brain regions that modulate stress and reward are part of a functional circuit that controls binge drinking and adds to the idea that manipulating the CRF system is an avenue for treating it.”
Can Medication “Turn Off” the Urge to Binge Drink?
As it turns out, alcohol activates the CRF neurons in the extended amygdala. This, then, directly acts upon the VTA. Observed in mice, these findings suggest that when we drink alcohol, our CRF neurons are activated in the extended amygdala and act on the VTA, which ultimately results in promoting continued, excessive drinking. This is what we know as a binge. Knowing this, we may now be able to find future medical treatments to help curb binge drinking as well as preventing any eventual transition to full-on alcohol dependence.
Combined with more traditional forms of treatment such as group and individual counseling and talk therapies, medically-assisted treatment has been proven to be an effective means of combating alcoholism and substance abuse. MAT combines pharmacological intervention with behavioral therapies and counselling, which work to address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction. Clinically driven, MAT, like most other forms of substance abuse treatment, focuses on the needs of the individual. Now, with new knowledge provided by this study and others like it, medical treatments that will be available to aid addicted individuals through the recovery process can potentially be more effective than ever.