Heavy Drinking and PTSD


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Many individuals attempt to "drink their problems away" on a daily basis.  It seems to make sense, excessive amounts of alcohol can cause you to forget certain things and "let go."  But scientists from the University of North Carolina and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism say that large amounts of alcohol can harm the individual's ability to recover from trauma.  

A new study reveals that alcohol actually rewires the human brain, making it exceptionally difficult to recover from trauma.  Researchers tested this with mice.  Two groups of mice were used; one group was given an amount of alcohol equivalent to twice the legal driving limit, the second was given no alcohol.  The mice were trained to fear a particular sound through the use of mild electric shocks.  After a period of time, the group that was not given alcohol stopped fearing the sound when it was not accompanied by the shock.  The group that was given alcohol continued to act fearfully when they heard the sound despite the fact that the shock had not accompanied it for an extended period of time. 

Scientists believe that the behavior seen in the mice is similar to that of humans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Scientists examined the neural circuity of the group of mice that was given the alcohol and noticed that a part of the brain was actually a different shape than those of the other group of mice.  A key receptor of activity was also found to be suppressed by excessive alcohol use.  

Scientists are finding this study particularly important because of the possibilities now that there is a specific part of the brain that is being pinpointed.  This can lead to the creation of anxiety medication that is specific to patients with heavy drinking problems. 

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3 Comments

This is a very interesting blog because in many TV shows, people who suffer with PTSD are portrayed as also having alcohol dependency problems. However, are these people with PTSD taking up drinking after they realize they cannot get over the past or are they immediately starting to drink in hopes of forgetting the past? In other words, is the drinking a symptom of PTSD or is PTSD a symptom of drinking? In there reverse causation? The study you talked about with mice seems accurate in that assuming our brains are slower with the consumption of alcohol. This has been proven time and time again which is why we have laws such as the ban against drinking and driving. Could drinking also be inhibiting other functions our bodies do to recover from illnesses. Are those illnesses limited to psychological problems or do they expand to physical ones as well?

I agree with Anna, it's fascinating and unfortunate that what is a bandaid for so many PTSD suffers is also making their condition worse. At the same time, this study applies to and can help inform all of us, since many of us will encounter trauma at some point (possibly even in the process of drinking). What do you think the implications of this would be for those who argue for medical marijuana being prescribed for more conditions?

While reading your post, I was thinking about alcohol and how it functions as a depressant. Looking around, I found this article, which contains a variety of information on depressants: http://youthondrugs.com/drugs/depressants

Depressants, in general, lower arousal levels and excitability by slowing down central nervous functions in the brain. They are used both recreationally and medically. Recreationally, they are used through alcoholic drinks. On a medical level, they are prescribed in most cases to reduce anxiety. Some people even refer to alcohol usage as "self-medicating." I found it interesting that alcohol is a depressant, and that depressants are used to treat anxiety. In relation to your blog post, PTSD involves severe anxiety. Perhaps using alcohol is an extreme way for people who have suffered a severe trauma to "self-medicate." Would prescribing an anti-anxiety medication have the same effects as alcohol?

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