We’re often asked whether there’s a cure for alcoholism. Often this is by a concerned partner or friend, and sometimes it’s by someone who suffers from the disease. Like many diseases, however, the answer lies between yes and no.
The problem with alcohol is that the brain doesn’t simply forget. All those days consuming alcohol mean that the brain has become used to copious amounts of alcohol in the body. This results in tolerance and so on.
The big question has always been this: If the brain can be rewired to crave alcohol, can it be re-rewired to not crave it again? Almost like an undo button on a word processor.
Trouble is, the brain isn’t like a word processor. Patches cannot be installed through a convenient medium (although how cool would it be to be able to upload vital information directly to the brain?), and we cannot reboot. Instead, behaviors have to be learned.
Pavlov’s Canine Experiment and Alcoholism
This takes us to a canine experiment: Pavlov’s dogs.
Pavlov was a Russian scientist who was famous for his progressive ideas. He got a load of dogs and would ring a bell when they were fed. He realized that the dogs would associate the bell with food, so he measured how much the dogs salivated when he rang the bell and didn’t put food down. The dogs salivated more when the bell was rang.
As Pavlov noted: “Appetite, craving for food, is a constant and powerful stimulator of the gastric glands.”
This leads us to the idea of conditioning. The question is this: How do you reverse this process?
Well, it turns out it’s not so easy. The brain is designed to learn things, and it doesn’t tend to forget things that it has learned, not wholly. A conditioned response is one that usually stays.
So, what has this got to do with alcohol? Surely the drool of dogs cannot really be likened to a chronic condition such as alcoholism?
Ah, but it can. Alcoholism is a learned process in many ways. Consider this: If a dog can be taught to drool at the sound of a bell, a human can be taught to anticipate and want alcohol if there is a pleasant stimulus. In this case, alcohol stimulates the brain.
Conditioned Response and Alcoholism
To further drive the point home, what happens when you order a meal to be delivered at home? If you see a vehicle with a pizza chain emblazoned on the side pull up or perhaps a man with a box walking to the door, you’ll start salivating. Try it and watch the window.
That’s not something we learn in the womb. That’s a conditioned response. In this case, the pleasant stimulus is food.
Dread is another response. You might smell something you really don’t like (in my case, it’s baked potatoes), and you feel a sinking feeling. That’s also a result of conditioning.
So why does conditioning play a big part in alcohol? Well, alcohol stimulates production of certain chemicals in the brain, and these make us feel good. We drink a bit more and then it eventually produces a sedative-like effect. This is because it binds to GABAA receptors. This is the body’s “reward” for drinking alcohol.
If alcohol consumption leads to alcoholism, the body also inflicts a “punishment” for stopping: withdrawal. What this means is that the body gets used to alcohol stimulating various receptors, and it cannot function without it.
There are some who claim that alcoholism can be cured. Personal stories abound of people never touching alcohol again after going to AA or receiving certain treatments. For some, alcoholism can be overcome, although whether it is cured is debatable. The other issue is that those who drink a lot are not necessarily alcoholics, so they may not undergo withdrawal. In addition, some people may not experience severe cravings and so on.
Personal stories are beguiling as they are easy to relate to, and we’re also conditioned to believe personal stories. This is because our learning processes are designed to help us learn from our surroundings (Don’t go near the lake; little Jimmy fell in the other day and was eaten by a crocodile). A story helps us to imagine the situation and learn artificially from that other person’s situation.
The hard evidence is that alcoholism is a lifelong condition. Why? Because although you read about the odd person “never” experiencing cravings again, thousands of people in virtually identical positions do not experience the same cure.
Time and training are the most important aspects of alcoholism treatment. While you’ll never get rid of the cravings completely, you can diminish them and train yourself how to avoid situations involving alcohol.
If you or someone you care about needs alcohol treatment to get started down the path of sobriety, know that you can use or toll-free number anytime to speak to one of our helpline specialists – .