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Volume 20, Number 3, September 2009

photo of Fulton Crews, PhD
Dr. Fulton T. Crews
Director, Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies

One question that has always interested me is whether alcoholics experience a greater reward from drinking alcohol than other individuals. Many recovered alcoholics have told me that they remember their first drink, which I do not. I have wondered if this memory resulted from therapy to recall all the bad things alcohol caused, one of the 12 steps of AA, or if the alcohol reward was so strong, it was unforgettable. Is it the buzz that drives drinking individuals to progress from experimentation to abuse to addiction?

Dr. C.J. Malanga has discovered that genetically different strains of mice show unique reward responses to alcohol, strongly suggesting genetic components of reward. This is almost impossible to do in humans because we have learned so much about alcohol that our response is blurred by what we learned. For example, those who have learned that alcohol or cocaine are dangerous will have more negative responses than those who have learned that these drugs make you feel good. Learned responses differ from innate biological responses and studies in adult humans cannot distinguish between them. Malanga has shown genetic differences in the innate reward response in the brain. Reward thresholds provide insight into how reward impacts the addiction process.

Dr. Joyce Besheer uses animals to identify the brain circuits that determine how alcohol “feels.” What makes alcohol consumption a unique experience? What alcohol responses are learned with drinking experience? Understanding those learned responses will help understand the drive that takes control over alcoholics. Together these approaches point to the same brain regions that underlie the motivation to consume alcohol. We are pleased to have these promising young scientists involved in our Center’s research program and intellectual environment. We expect continuing great progress from both of them.

We are also pleased to honor one of our senior professors, Dr. George Breese, with a John Andrews Distinguished Professorship. Dr. Breese is a leader in studies of the GABAmimetic effects of ethanol, unique brain region sensitivity to alcohol and how alcohol abuse leads to anxiety and craving for alcohol. He has made discoveries in neuropharmacology for over 40 years. The distinguished professorship will support his continued research and scholarship so he can focus on his studies of the mechanisms that underlie protracted ethanol withdrawal anxiety. John Andrews wanted to support research that will lead to new treatments for alcoholism. We believe that Breese’s work is likely to do just that.