Key brain region identified for alcohol relapse

Florey scientists have identified a key brain region involved in relapse to alcohol-drinking in an animal model. The research aims to prevent the devastating effects of relapse in humans.

Dr Erin Campbell from the Florey’s Addiction Neuroscience laboratory has used sophisticated animal experiments to identify a key brain region involved in relapse to alcohol-drinking.

The research may one day be pivotal in preventing the devastating effects of relapse in Alcohol Use Disorder.

Alcohol addicted humans often stop drinking due to negative health and social consequences. Sadly, a distressing event such as a relationship breakup or job loss can mean this abstinence is only temporary, even though they know there will undoubtedly be negative consequences in the future.

Using a newly developed rodent model of this relapse to drinking despite negative consequences, Dr Erin Campbell has now identified a key brain region, the anterior insular cortex, in the disorder.

The anterior insular cortex is folded underneath the outer surface of the brain, just above the ears. Its function is still being worked out by brain scientists.

Dr Campbell, along with team leader Professor Andrew Lawrence, discovered that the anterior insular is activated to a much higher degree in relapsing rats.

They then deactivated the cells in this brain region, preventing the previously addicted rats from relapsing to their damaging drinking.

Dr Campbell said, “Our work has clearly identified a brain region that appears to be powerful enough to control alcohol relapse. Interestingly, human brain imaging studies have implicated this region in Alcohol Use Disorder, but obviously we can’t deliberately induce alcohol relapse in humans.”

“In the not-too-distant-future we could see people being treated in a number of ways to dampen down activity in the insular after an adverse experience like grief or relationship breakdowns, to ensure they don’t have to endure even more negative consequences as a result of starting drinking again.”

The work was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience: