It’s a common scene in bars and clubs: messy, falling-down drunk, slurring and incoherent, precariously close to catastrophe … and asking the bartender for another shot.
For the majority of us who imbibe, there is a certain point at which we stop pounding the drinks, and many reasons we do so. Maybe we sense that we’re close to our limit, or we notice we don’t feel as well—physically and emotionally—as we did a couple of glasses ago. And sometimes the sedative effects of the alcohol just take over. But for a certain subset of people, nothing—not the risk of losing control or the threat of nausea and dizziness—is enough to put the brakes on their drinking.
UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist Karen Szumlinski, who investigates binge drinking and the repeated stress of overdrinking on the brain, suggests a neurobiological mechanism might underpin this behavior. She and her team have uncovered a mechanism in a small brain structure called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) that helps sense alcohol’s negative effects and modulates the urge to drink. When it doesn’t function properly, however, we lose the ability to perceive when we’ve had enough—or, perhaps, one too many—and we continue to drink.