Researchers at Indiana University have discovered a link between the neurotransmitter glutamate and alcohol cravings, relapse and addiction, warranting more research into the development of more targeted treatment.

Nearly 30% of Americans have dealt with alcohol use disorder (AUD) at some point in their lives, and approximately 90% of alcoholics are likely to relapse within 4 years following treatment. Relapses are typically triggered by cues–sights, sounds and situations–that are associated with drinking experiences. These are referred to as “cues” because they prompt a craving for the substance.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism, is the first of its kind to examine changes in glutamate levels among those with AUD during exposure to these cues.

“Glutamate is the real workhorse of all transmitters in the brain,” said George Rebec, a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University. “Dopamine is the more popularly known neurotransmitter, a lack of which contributes to depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Parkinson’s disease–but it actually accounts for less than 5% of all synaptic activity. By contrast, glutamate  accounts for about 50% of this activity and is especially involved in the reward-motivation circuits integral to addiction.”

Researchers examined 35 participants: 17 with alcohol use disorder (AUD) and 18 without. They measured glutamate concentrations using magnetic resonance spectroscopy and found a decrease of glutamate in the brains of those with AUD after they were exposed to alcohol cues, such as an image of a glass of alcohol, compared to when they were shown neutral images. Control participants without AUD demonstrated no change in glutamate levels.

Now that researchers have found that glutamate levels in the human brain can be measured with magnetic resonance spectroscopy, it enables future research to target glutamate levels in the brain and develop new, more effective treatments not just for AUD, but other addictions in addition to alcohol cravings.

Until these treatments are available and tested, the most effective way to overcome AUD is with detox and evidence-based treatment that incorporates relapse prevention training. For more information about alcohol and glutamate, contact us at 561.271.7612 or visit our Alcohol Detox Program page.