Why do people like being tipsy? Here’s how alcohol affects the brain.

Why do people like being tipsy? Here’s how alcohol affects the brain.

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Alcohol is one of the most used drugs in the world. Millions of people enjoy the strange feeling it produces, especially at social gatherings where a little booze seems to get the good times flowing.

In one study, over 700 male and female heavy drinkers were divided into groups of three strangers and instructed to drink for 36 minutes. The participants thought the drinks were a prelude to the experiment, but the researchers were observing what they did at the table.

At first the strangers did not smile much. But as they consumed their cranberry vodka drinks, their expressions changed. They not only smiled more, but also caught each other’s smiles and talked more in succession. And they shared more of what the researchers called “golden moments” when the three strangers smiled as one.

“It feels like the group is really coming together, and I think they’re part of that social, weird experience,” said Michael Sayette, director of the Alcohol and Tobacco Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, who co-authored the the study.

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Alcohol disinhibits the brain

Drinking is socially acceptable, but “alcohol is just like any other drug,” said Jodi Gilman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of neuroscience for the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It affects the brain.”

Ethanol, the remarkably simple chemical that gives alcoholic beverages their buzz, permeates our body and brain cells within minutes of consumption. We still don’t know much about the effects of alcohol on the brain. “It has such widespread effects on the brain,” said Jessica Weafer, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Unlike other drugs that affect specific regions of the brain or act on specific receptors, “alcohol just kind of goes all over the brain” making it difficult to study, she said.

Alcohol is widely recognized as a depressant, meaning that it generally suppresses neural activity in the brain. It amplifies the effects of brain chemicals that inhibit nerve activity—GABA and glycine—by acting on the same receptors that neurotransmitters bind to. At the same time, alcohol inhibits the effects of excitatory brain chemicals, producing a double whammy of reduced brain activity.

As most drinkers will know, alcohol has a biphasic effect: initially and in low doses, it produces a buzz where we feel stimulated and sanitized as if we could dance or talk forever, before drowsiness sets in.

This rise and fall of our spirits corresponds to the rise and fall of our blood alcohol levels.

A look inside the drunken brain

To see what happens in the intoxicated brain, researchers gave willing participants alcohol through IV lines while they lay inside fMRI neuroimaging scanners.

Alcohol can cause us to disinhibit activity in parts of our frontal cortex, which is important for executive control functions, such as inhibiting behaviors we don’t want to do. By lowering our inhibitions, alcohol makes us feel more stimulated.

Being pleasantly buzzed also releases dopamine and increases activity in the striatum, a key brain region associated with rewarding stimuli. Weafer and her colleagues found that neural activity in the striatum corresponded to how the stimulated alcohol made the participants feel.

The participants were taking the alcohol intravenously, but still “they enjoy it, even though they’re just lying in a scanner,” Weafer said.

Alcohol also affects the emotional centers of the brain. In one study, alcohol moderated neural responses in the amygdala to negative facial expressions, which may be why drinking can serve as a social lubricant, said Gilman, who led the study.

A little liquid courage can help us become less susceptible to rejection or social anxiety. But it can also lead to bar fights or inappropriate behavior when someone has had too much to drink.

Social context also matters

Alcohol’s intoxicating powers are not just pharmacological.

“The funny thing about brains is that brains like to hang out with other brains,” Sayette said. “How the brain looks when you drink changes dramatically, depending on whether you’re alone or in a social situation.”

Being around others in a social setting can be intoxicating in itself, and alcohol seems to add to the good feelings. It also signals to others that we’re letting our hair down, which doesn’t require an intoxicating dose to see the mood’s effects, Sayette said.

He points to a study in the 1970s that asked how people felt after entering a laboratory and drinking alone or in a group. When people drank alone, they talked more about physiological effects such as dizziness than changes in their mood. But when they drank in a social context, they talked more about feeling emotions rather than bodily effects.

“It’s not distilled down to additional dopamine release,” Sayette said. “That’s pretty simple.”

Nutrition and health columnist Anahad O’Connor gives six tips on how to prevent or cure a hangover. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Anahad O’Connor/The Washington Post)

How to enjoy, responsibly

Although studies show that no amount of alcohol is healthy and alcohol use disorders can be deadly, many can enjoy a few drinks on occasion.

When going out for a night of drinking, here’s what researchers recommend:

Have a plan. How much will you drink? How are you going to get home? These decisions are easier to make when you’re not in a bind.

Eat food beforehand. This slows down the metabolism of alcohol. And drink lots of water.

Know your limits. Each person has a different level of tolerance. Slurred speech or loss of coordination can be warning signs to slow down. “You have to know when you feel like you’ve lost control of your drinking,” Gilman said.

Know why you are drinking. If you are drinking to numb negative feelings or despite the negative consequences, this may be a sign to talk to someone for help.

“It’s certainly possible to be a responsible drinker,” Gilman said. “I think a lot of people can have a drink on holiday and be perfectly fine.”

Have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email [email protected] and we may answer it in a future column.

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