Cincinnati--University of Cincinnati (UC) Medical Center researcher,
Robert Anthenelli, MD, associate professor of psychiatry, UC College of
Medicine and director of substance dependence programs at Cincinnati
Veterans Affairs Medical Center, reports findings of the relationship
between alcoholism and stress in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
serves as the principal investigator of a National Institute on Alcohol
Abuse and Alcoholism and Department of Veterans Affairs study
investigating the adaptation of stress hormones in recovering
alcoholics (abstaining from alcohol use for an average of four months).
Disturbances in the stress hormones, adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH)
and cortisol, and the brain chemicals that regulate their release
(e.g., serotonin), are linked to behavioral disorders, such as
alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and anxiety disorders.
study measured the release of stress hormones in recovering alcoholics
who'd been given a single dose of fenfluramine; a drug formerly used to
treat appetite disorders. Fenfluramine increases serotonin activity in
the brain, which triggers a response of the
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress axis, a system of inter-connected
brain and hormone-producing structures. Anthenelli's study found recovering
alcoholics had a two-fold greater hypersensitive stress hormone
response to the serotonin-releasing drug and did not return to normal
levels as readily as the non-alcoholic comparison subjects.
Chronically high stress levels contribute to the development of
stress-related diseases, and may lead to stress-induced relapse to
drinking in some vulnerable alcoholics.
According to U.S. News and World Report,14
million people currently abuse alcohol or are alcoholics in the United
States. Anthenelli's study indicates that some of these alcoholics may
possess biochemical abnormalities making them respond to certain
stressors differently than non-alcoholics. Understanding more about the
mechanisms that underlie these disturbances should lead to improved
diagnostic tools and treatment interventions in the battle against
"The results of this study were surprising because
all other published research on alcoholics (with shorter alcohol-free
periods) found that there was a blunted or unchanged stress response
following serotonergic stimulation," Anthenelli said. "The stress
hormone response in recovering alcoholics did not return to baseline
levels as quickly as it did in non-alcoholic subjects. In other words,
it appears that some of the recovering alcoholic subjects had
difficulty turning off the fenfluramine-induced stress response."
outcome of this study will be to further examine the link between
stress and relapse in alcoholic behavior as well as to determine if
this is an acquired or inherited abnormality.