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Why do people like to get drunk? See how alcohol affects the brain.

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Alcohol is one of the most consumed drugs in the world. Millions of people enjoy the intoxicated 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 social 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 watching what they did at the table.

Initially, the strangers didn’t smile much. But as they consumed their vodka and cranberry drinks, their expressions changed. Not only did they smile more, but they also caught each other’s smiles and spoke more successively. And they shared more of what the researchers called “golden moments” when all three strangers smiled as one.

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

What is it about being drunk that is enjoyable?

Alcohol disinhibits the brain

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

Ethanol, the remarkably simple chemical compound that gives alcoholic beverages their vibe, permeates our body and brain cells within minutes of consumption. There’s still a lot we don’t know about alcohol’s effects on the brain. “It has 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 sort of spreads throughout the brain,” making it difficult to study, she said.

Alcohol is widely known to be a depressant, meaning that it generally suppresses neural activity in the brain. It amplifies the effects of brain chemicals that inhibit neural activity – GABA and glycine – by acting on the same receptors that these neurotransmitters bind to. At the same time, alcohol inhibits the effects of excitatory chemicals in the brain, producing a one-two punch of reduced brain activity.

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

This rise and fall of our spirit 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, the researchers gave volunteer participants alcohol through intravenous lines while they lay down inside fMRI neuroimaging scanners.

Alcohol can disinhibit us by dampening 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 inhibiting our inhibitions, alcohol makes us feel more stimulated.

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

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

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

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

The social context is also important.

The intoxicating powers of alcohol are not just pharmacological.

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

Being around other people in a social setting can be intoxicating, and alcohol seems to amplify the good feelings. It also provides a signal to others that we’re relaxing, which doesn’t require a heady dose to see the mood effects, Sayette said.

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

“It’s not distilled for extra dopamine release,” Sayette said. “That is too simplistic.”

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 now and then.

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

You have a plan. How much are you going to drink? How are you going to get home? These decisions are easier to make when you are not uninhibited.

eat before. It slows the metabolism of alcohol. And drink lots of water.

Know your limits. Each person has a different tolerance level. Slurred speech or loss of coordination can be warning signs to slow down. “You need to know when you’re feeling 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 negative consequences, this could be a sign to ask 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 vacation and be totally fine.”

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer it in a future column.

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