October 27, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Deryck Whibley couldn’t stop the spiral to alcoholism because of its dual impact on his brain …


“I was sitting at home, poured myself another drink around midnight and was about to watch a movie when all of a sudden I didn’t feel so good. I then collapsed to the ground unconscious.” Words written by Deryck Whibley in his article Rock Bottom about the moment his kidneys and liver failed due to alcoholism. Doctors have told the pop star, whose albums sold 30 million copies worldwide, that one more drink could kill him.

But why did Deryck find his addiction to alcohol impossible to beat? Brendan M. Walker, Associate Professor at Washington State University may have the answer: “When alcohol dependent people are trying to stop drinking they show severe depression, impulsivity and cognitive deficits. They need to keep self medicating with alcohol to block the depression, but when they do that they end up inducing more neural adaptations and so they drink more. It’s a big spiral.”

The depression is caused by dynorphins in the brain. Whereas endorphins give the feeling of pleasure and wellbeing, dynorphins provoke the lows that Walker refers to. In Deryck Whibley’s brain, the dynorphins that were supposed to warn him about his failing organs were drowned out by the endorphins that alcohol intake stimulated. When he tried to stop drinking, the dynorphins took hold, but they weren’t the only problem.

Recent research by Walker has revealed that brain changes in alcohol dependent people causes also an increase in the number of receptors for dynorphins, which amplifies the negative feelings that come from dynorphin release. He described this effect as the “one-two punch”.  It was this double low that led Deryck to drink to excess each time he returned to alcohol, and so caused his problem to spiral. Walker’s experiment on rats supports the finding:

“Our rats are trained to self-administer alcohol, so when dependent rats are in withdrawl, they’ll have a huge escalation of their alcohol self-administration,” he said. “Non-dependent rats will drink the equivalent of two to three beers, kind of like a social drinker. In dependent rats this escalates, and they will drink the equivalent of five to ten beers in a 30 minute period.”

By blocking the rats’ dynorphin receptors, Walker’s team were able to reduce their alcohol intake from excessive to “social” levels. This groundbreaking treatment, which focuses on reducing rather than stopping drinking altogether, may have helped Dereyck avoid the spiralling neural adaptations that drove his vital organs to the point of collapse. A sobering thought.