The role of the amygdala in social behavior and alcoholism
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Alcoholism is a major health risk, since 4% of all deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol. The development of alcoholism is influenced by genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors. The reward feeling, derived of alcohol consumption, can also stimulate the development of an alcohol problem. This reward is mediated by the mesolimbic reward pathway in the brain. Social behavior, especially social play, can also result in a reward feeling and there is a relation between social behavior and alcohol. This relation is most clearly seen in adolescents, where alcohol facilitates social behavior and where a social environment can support alcohol use, presumably by emphasizing the positive effects of alcohol. Much research is done towards the underlying mechanisms of alcohol use, social behavior and the relation between the two. Of particular interest in this respect is the research on prairie voles that display strong social bonds and have a high preference for alcohol that is related to social behavior. Based on different studies it turned out that low doses of alcohol can support play behavior, presumably by the release of opioids. One of the brain structures involved in social play and alcohol is the amygdala, which contributes to the rewarding effects of both. The amygdala is also involved in the sex differences of social play, and with respect to alcohol it might also play a role in the positive and negative reinforcing effects of alcohol, which suggest a regulating function of the amygdala. Furthermore, there was an increased expression of the adapter protein 14-3-3ζ found in the amygdala during escalated alcohol intake, which might confirm the regulating role of the amygdala on alcohol intake. However, there is more research needed towards this effect and if the amygdala has indeed a regulating role, it might be a potential target for a treatment of alcoholism, perhaps via the stimulating effects of social play on the amygdala.