Can having a stroke turn you into an alcoholic?

Changes in the brain following stroke could make patients more prone to alcoholism, according to research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The study found that rats, after suffering a common kind of stroke — in the middle cerebral artery — preferred to drink more alcohol instead of water.

This, the researchers believe, is because neuron death in the dorsal lateral striatum — an area of the brain important in reward and decision making — excites a dopamine receptor called D1. In humans this receptor has been shown to compel a person to perform an action they are contemplating, such as having an alcoholic drink.

Farida Sohrabji, the study’s co-lead author, said: ‘In an ischaemic stroke, a blood vessel to the brain is blocked, which deprives the neurons in the brain of glucose and oxygen. Neurons are very dependent on these two nutrients, and without them, neurons very rapidly begin to die.’

When the D1 receptor was inhibited, alcohol-seeking behaviour decreased ‘significantly’.

Jun Wang, the study’s other co-lead author, said: ‘This is a hint at how the brain works and although we’re a long way off, something to inhibit this D1 receptor might be a possible therapeutic target for a drug to help people resist the urge to drink after a stroke.

‘It’s important because although stroke is a severe disease, more and more people are surviving and recovering after their first stroke. Therefore, it is important to study behaviour change after stroke, and how that behaviour can affect the chances of having another one, which is often fatal.’

Stroke patients are advised to limit alcohol consumption to help prevent a recurrence. This study demonstrates that the damage caused by the stroke could encourage them to drink more. These findings could help to explain anecdotal reports that patients have difficulty abstaining from alcohol during recovery.

Instant analysis
This is a very interesting study, more from a scientific point of view than a clinical one. The idea that having a stroke could increase desire for alcohol is certainly worth exploring further. If having a stroke influenced our behaviour in a way that made us more likely to have another one, knowledge of this could help us act to mitigate it.

This study gets into deep scientific detail regarding the neural pathways of alcohol desire, but it would be interesting to see how this translates to humans. Alcohol seeking behaviour is complex, undoubtedly more so in humans than in rodents. Further research would be useful, potentially helping us to improve outcomes in stroke patients.
Research score: 3/5
MB