Alcoholism: The Neurochemistry of Addiction
Many people are affected by alcoholism. Physical dependence on alcohol is marked by chronic compulsive abuse. Moreover, for the severely dependent, alcoholic withdrawal can be life-threatening. Clearly, alcohol exerts a considerable effect upon the brain. Researchers have postulated that certain of these alterations may actually form the basis for alcohol addiction. Furthermore, such neurophysiologic phenomena may additionally be responsible for other addictive behaviors.
Ethanol is a psychoactive drug. Blood alcohol concentrations of approximately 1.0 gram/liter will intoxicate non-alcoholic persons; concentrations of 4.0 grams/liter typically induce lethal respiratory depression (Harper & Kril, 1990, pp. 207-213). The chronic consumption of ethanol leads to addiction (Lewis, 1990, pp. 47-63). Alcohol use and abuse affect many people. A recent study performed in the United States concluded that the rate for a lifetime diagnosis of alcoholism in the general population was 16 percent. For females, the rate was measured at 6 percent; whereas, among males it was found to be as high as 29 percent (Miller & Gold, 1993, pp. 105-112).
Perhaps the most important development in the study of alcoholism consists of the "disease concept" (Baciewicz, 1993, pp. 223-227). This concept was first cultivated during the 18th century by the founder of American psychiatry, Benjamin Rush. In his book, The Effect of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, Rush described alcoholism as a medical illness. Unfortunately though, prohibition emphasized the moral and legal aspects of alcoholism. It wasn't until 1960 that Jellinek wrote The Disease Concept of Alcoholism. By identifying five "species" of alcoholics, this work contributed to the concept of alcoholism as a progressive pathologic condition (Baciewicz, 1993, pp. 223-227).
More recently, the National Council of Alcohol and D...