Specific neurons, and their relationship to one another, play a pivotal role in alcohol use disorder.
Neurons are separate cells that reside close to each other in the brain but do not touch. Instead, there’s a small space in between each neuron called the synapse.
Neurons talk to one another by transmitting neurochemicals from one brain cell to the next. Neurons have vesicles, which resemble water balloons, that release neurochemical molecules into the synapse that attach to neighboring neuronal “receptors” based on the shape of the molecule and the shape of the receptor site. In that way, neurochemicals find and “fit” to their respective receptor sites similar to how a uniquely shaped key fits into a unique lock.
We have many neurochemicals and they each perform different roles to regulate bodily systems. Several, for example, have a direct impact on our mood, such as serotonin, GABA, and glutamate.
Neurochemicals are released into the synapse from neuronal firing, which is an electrical impulse or charge inside the neuron. When a charge reaches a threshold the neuron will fire and release its neurochemical into the synapse toward a neighboring neuron’s receptor sites, and that will perpetuate a “neuronal message” further down a neuronal pathway. Though neurons don’t ever touch, they can strengthen their connections with repeated firing of the same neurochemicals over long periods of time. These strengthened connections are sometimes called pathways.
That’s what happens with alcohol use disorder. Repeated and excessive consumption of alcohol will release endorphins more frequently and strengthen those neuronal pathways, in turn creating a dependency on alcohol.
You can use pharmaceuticals (drugs) to “tinker” significantly with neuronal activity, both in a good, therapeutic way or in a bad way that can cause addictions or other problems.