UC San Francisco researchers have linked alcohol addiction to the release of endorphins in the human brain, marking the first time these feel-good chemicals were directly related to alcohol use in Homo sapiens.

Shedding light on the substance’s addictive character, the results revealed that heavy drinkers respond to intoxication with more positive feelings than control subjects who do not drink heavily.

According to UCSF assistant professor of neurology Jennifer Mitchell, the release of endorphins have never been proven as the result of positive emotions that result from drinking alcohol, despite years of common assumption that such a link exists.

“[The research] proves this thing that people have speculated about for 30 years — endorphin release does indeed occur following alcohol consumption,” Mitchell said. “Endorphins make you feel good and we have a tendency to repeat those behaviors that make us feel good. It’s plausible that the endorphin release is leading people to drink.”

UCSF professor of neurology Howard Fields, the study’s co-author, said its groundbreaking findings may lead to new and more innovative forms of treatment for alcoholism while also lessening its related social stigma.

“What I’d like to see is that people begin to think of heavy drinking as a medical problem as opposed to a weakness in moral fiber,” Fields said. “It’s a biological problem.”

Mitchell said it can also lead to improvements on Naltrexone, a drug which is currently used to treat alcohol addiction.

“The long-term goal is to develop these therapeutic treatments,” Mitchell said. “The shorter goal is to take Naltrexone as our litmus test and better it, through reverse engineering and [make] it specific enough that when people take it, they have the beneficial effects of the drug but not the side effects.”

On college campuses, alcohol abuse is an especially prevalent issue since it plays a major role in students’ social activities, Fields said.

“[UCSB is] a college where a lot of people begin to drink heavily and there’s peer pressure among certain groups of college students to actually try to drink a lot and they do. I know that that happens at Santa Barbara,” Fields said. “That’s the point at which early education and early intervention might be able to prevent people from going on and having a more serious alcohol problem.”