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See Inside April/May 2006

Staying Sober

Better understanding of how alcohol alters brain chemistry reveals mechanisms for beating dependency



MICHAEL NEMETH Getty Images

Former alcoholics have a tough time resisting the urge to drink in two particularly trying situations. Analysis of what is happening in their heads under these circumstances is greatly improving neurobiologists understanding of how chronic alcohol use changes the brain. And their findings suggest measures that could help people abstain.

The following case illustrates one of the most tempting situations. Hank had been dry for several weeks thanks to a radical withdrawal program, but a simple walk past Petes Tavern on any given night almost erased his will to abstain. During the daytime he did not feel a craving for alcohol, but when he passed the bar in the evening--when he saw the warm light through the windows and heard the glasses clinking--he would be sorely tempted to run inside for a beer. Addiction researchers call this phenomenon conditioned desire. If a person had always consumed alcohol in the same situation, an encounter with the familiar stimuli will make the feeling of need for the substance almost irresistible. Then, even after years of abstinence, consuming a single drink can set off a powerful longing to imbibe more and more.

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