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Scientists Have Found the Brain Cells that Tell You When to Stop Drinking

Science is finally starting to grasp why the human brain, which is designed to protect us from making stupid decisions, continues to whisper “one more,” when we are already in the throes of hardcore drinking.
Photo via Flickr user Slava

"One more, just one more," the little voice tells you. You're out boozing and you hit that sweet spot where you've got a good buzz going and you know that the damage will be minimal the following day—it's time to stop.

Yet the voice persists. It tells you, and millions of young drinkers, to keep going, insisting that the good times will only get better. They don't. Next thing you know, you've entered the land of no return known as binge drinking, and any chance you had of a productive tomorrow evaporates faster than the liquor on your breath.

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While most drinkers have experienced this unfortunate inner struggle, science is finally starting to grasp why the human brain, which is designed to protect us from making stupid decisions, continues to whisper "one more," when we are already in the throes of hardcore drinking.

READ MORE: Your Adolescent Binge-Drinking Has Ruined Your Brain Forever

Previous research has already helped psychologists understand which parts of the brain are responsible for this apparent glitch in human behavior, and now, an article published in the journal Biological Psychiatry is shedding light on the specific brain cells involved in binge drinking.

Researchers from the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine had already found that activation of a dopamine receptor called D1 "determines whether one drink leads to two." Building on this research, they managed to get a better idea of how D1 cells interact with "good" D2 neurons, whose job it is to say "Stop right now, thank you very much!"

"D1 neurons are informally called part of a 'go' pathway in the brain, while D2 neurons are in the 'no-go' pathway," the authors of the study said in a press release. "In other words, when D2 neurons are activated, they discourage action—telling you to wait, to stop, to do nothing."

What they found was that alcohol not only accelerates the "go" cells, but also shuts down the "no-go" pathways, meaning that, even in individuals without alcoholism, D2 neurons become deactivated and there is nothing telling us to stop drinking. Thus, we get stuck "in a self-perpetuating cycle."

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"Think of the binge drinking behavior of so many young adults," author Jun Wang said. "Essentially, they are probably doing the same thing that we've shown leads to inhibition of these so-called 'good' neurons and contributes to greater alcohol consumption."

But Jun and her team went a step further by manipulating D2 activity in animals, and were actually able to decrease alcohol consumption, adding that "the more the D2 neurons were activated, the greater the effect is likely to be."

While these results were limited to mice, Wang and her team were obviously working with human behavior in mind and looking for possible treatments for alcoholism and binge drinking in the future. "That's the ultimate goal," Wang said. "I hope these findings will eventually be able to be used for treatment for alcohol addiction."

Alcohol-related healthcare costs US taxpayers a staggering $223.5 billion every year, $170 billion of which is linked directly to binge drinking, defined by the CDC as consuming four or more drinks in two hours.

Who knows? Maybe one day you will be able to silence that pesky voice by simply pressing a button connected directly to your D2 cells. But until then, you're on your own.