A recently published study found that, in lab animals, drinking alcohol caused the same molecular and neural changes as certain drugs used as fast-acting antidepressants. The researchers suggest this may help explain the “self-medication hypothesis”, one theory behind why major depressive disorders seem to come with higher rates of alcoholism.
In Brief: Self-Medication Hypothesis
The basic idea behind the hypothesis is that depressed individuals turn to drinking to try and treat their depression. The reason why this happens (alcohol makes them feel better) is not hard to imagine, but scientists value precision and data. It is not always enough for an explanation to make sense; it must also have a biological explanation.
For the record, the researchers very blatantly say they are not encouraging alcohol use for depression. There are a lot more consequences to alcohol self-medicating than there are to antidepressants and this study is just an attempt to explain the hypothesis, not advocate drinking.
The researchers gave the test subjects a single dose of alcohol measured to cause intoxication. It was found that the alcohol blocked NMDA receptors, which are proteins that are associated with learning and memory. This blockage, in conjunction with another protein called FMRP, transformed an acid known as GABA from an inhibitor of neural activity to a stimulator. The animals began to display “non-depressive” behaviors for at least 24 hours afterwards.
What This Means
The findings suggest a biochemical explanation for why major depressive disorders are more likely to be accompanied by alcohol. Fast-acting antidepressants are able to offer relief for patients who don’t see benefit from normal depression treatments, which might imply alcohol is turned to when conventional treatments fail. Since this was an animal study, validation in humans would be important as well.
“Alcohol Shown to Act in Same Way as Rapid Antidepressants,” Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center web site, September 27, 2016; http://www.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2016/Alcohol_Shown_to_Act_in_Same_Way_as_Rapid_Antidepressants.htm, last accessed September 29, 2016.