Glutamate is a neurotransmitter produced in the human body and is a naturally occurring amino acid found naturally in several foods, like peas, soy sauce, mushrooms, and walnuts.
Normal levels of glutamate help with memory, while too much glutamate is associated with conditions like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Individuals who have problems using and/or processing glutamate may be more likely to develop disorders like autism, schizophrenia, and alcoholism.
Scientists at Indiana University conducted a study which used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure glutamate changes in volunteer subjects who were given alcohol cues. Images were from the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is an area of the brain located in the medial frontal lobe. It is a part of the brain considered essential for mental activity and is specifically involved in tasks involving awareness and attention. This part of the brain also has extensive connections with other important areas of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, hypothalamus, and brainstem.
Earlier studies at Indiana University explored how the sensations related to addiction, such as sights and sounds, affected the glutamate levels in rats to elicit a craving for substances they had been addicted to. Because glutamate accounts for about half of all synaptic activity, it is considered “the real workhorse of the transmitters in the brain (News at IU Bloomington, 2018),” and its role in addiction cannot be understated.
The latest study, which was published in The Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism, used 35 volunteers of subjects, 17 of whom had an alcohol disorder. After measuring the levels of glutamate, the study found that there was a decrease of glutamate levels in the brains of subjects with an alcohol disorder after they were shown cues related to drinking, but individuals without an alcohol disorder showed no change in their glutamate levels when exposed to the same stimuli. Scientists are hopeful that they can use this information to target glutamate levels in the brains of those who have alcohol disorders.
The study was a collaborative effort among scientists who have very different approaches. For instance, Sharlene Newman and Hu Cheng are part of the IU Imaging Research Facility, and Peter Finn is a clinical psychologist studying the decisions that individuals make when they are still in their early stages of an alcohol disorder. Hopefully, this concrete evidence of chemical changes in the brain can help scientists provide more and better solutions to the problem of alcohol addiction.