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The Biology of Booze May Explain Drinking Habits


A couple of Cosmopolitans stimulate one person and sedate another and therein may be what separates heavy drinkers from light drinkers. New research from the University of Chicago indicates that there may be a biological difference in the way people respond to alcohol and that this may contribute to their drinking habits.

There are many reasons young adults are drawn to bingeing on booze, but when Andrea King, an assistant psychiatry professor, and her colleagues invited 34 young men and women for drinks in the lab, they found that the heavy drinkers began to feel euphoric within 15 minutes of downing a highly alcoholic beverage. Since they weren't allowed to continue drinking, they eventually experienced a mild sedative effect when their blood-alcohol level began to drop.

The light drinkers had the opposite reaction. The pleasurable feeling seemed to escape them, and as their blood-alcohol levels increased, they felt drowsy and sluggish.

The question that remains is: Are hard drinkers born--possibly having inherited their particular biological response to alcohol--or do they develop it as a result of practice? "Alternatively, both may be true," says King. "A heavy drinker may be born with the tendency to develop sensitivity if exposed to repeated alcohol binges, which continues to be a common practice in young adults in our country."

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported in April that about 40% of college students engage in "binge drinking," amounting to five or more drinks for men and four or more for women. Further, the institute said, drinking by college students contributes to 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 sexual assaults a year.

Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 26 (6): 827-835

Accounting for Taste

Overweight people may have many strikes against them--genetics, lifestyle, slower metabolism and hormonal conditions to name just a few. But at the bottom of the list, or the top, depending on how you look at it, is that they simply eat more calories than they burn. And the reason they eat too much may be that the taste of food gives them more of a thrill than it does for someone who can easily say no thanks to chocolate cake or a sizzling steak.

Ten severely obese men and women and a comparison group of 20 lean volunteers had PET (positron emission tomography) scans of their brains at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. When the PET scans were compared, the researchers found that the taste and mouth regions in obese people were "hot spots" of activity compared with the same regions in lean men and women.

This hyperactivity in the areas of the brain involved with taste could make obese people more sensitive to the sensual rewarding properties of food and could be one of the reasons they eat too much, concludes Gene-Jack Wang, lead author of the study and clinical head of PET imaging program at Brookhaven. Having less tasty food in the house might be one strategy to help obese people cut back on calories.

NeuroReport, July 2, 2002

Osteoporosis Treatment

The diagnosis of a health problem usually sends a person down a path toward treatment. But, with osteoporosis, women may not be as aggressive at getting their bone loss treated as they might be.

According to research that is part of the Women's Health Initiative, half of the women in a large screening study who went to the doctor as a result of having the bone condition detected did not start treatment. The Women's Health Initiative is a study of the major determinants of disease and death in post-menopausal women.

In the new research, more than 800 women, ages 58 to 90, had DXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) scans to assess their bone density for the first time. Slightly more than half had abnormal results and were told to see their doctors. A year later when researchers followed up to see who had been treated, three-quarters of the women had gone to see a doctor, but treatment had been started in only about half of them.

The researchers reported their findings at the recent meeting of the Society for Epidemiogical Research, and they are now investigating what role the women and their doctors played in the treatment decision. They do know that those who were most likely to be treated had more advanced disease and were better educated.

Hooked on Sugar

You can lead a hungry rat to sugar water and it will soon become hooked, quickly doubling its daily intake. Now researchers have found that by creating a sugar habit in rodents, they may eventually be able to explain sugar cravings in humans.

After 12 hours of fasting, the rats were given a balanced diet plus sugar water for 12 hours. Over the following days, not only did the rats increase their sugar intake, they consumed most of their daily fix within the first hour after it was offered, one of the first signs of dependency.

Researchers hesitate to use the word "addicted," but they believe that the rats did become dependent on opioids in their brains that were released when they got a rush of sugar. When the sugar was suddenly stopped, the rats got the shakes. Their teeth chattered and they had paw tremors.

Although some people think they're hooked on sugar, there hasn't been any proof that a true addiction exists. This study in rats strongly hints at a habit-forming connection between cravings and brain chemistry, and it indicates that fasting and then bingeing could be an important part of that puzzle.

Obesity Research 10 (6): 478-488

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