February 19, 2018 Addiction

Glutamate: The Addiction Neurotransmitter?

Glutamate is very important. It’s a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells. It’s how different parts of our nervous system talk to one another. Perhaps the most well-known of all neurotransmitters is dopamine. Most people have heard of it, and a lot of people know that low dopamine levels can cause anxiety, depression, ADHD, and even Parkinson’s disease. However, only 5% of all neurotransmitter activity is attributed to dopamine. Glutamate, according to Wikipedia, “is used by every major excitatory function in the vertebrate brain, accounting in total for well over 90% of the synaptic connections in the human brain.”

Here are some things glutamate helps regulate: learning, memory, digestion, appetite control, immune system health, bone health, anxiety levels, and sleep, among countless more. Glutamate is found in nearly all parts of the entire nervous system, and not just in humans but in most animals and some plants as well. It’s absolutely essential to life, and it’s abundant.

Now we understand that glutamate can cause a recovering alcoholic to relapse.

A very recent study has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt how glutamate levels are associated with the craving of alcohol and invariably the process of relapsing during recovery from alcoholism. It all began with Dr. George Rebec, the Chancellor’s Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Addiction Cues

The reason that rats are used in scientific experiments is because their DNA structure is incredibly similar to that of humans. Dr. Rebec has focused his 43-year career as a doctor “on the neural mechanisms underlying basic behavioral processes such as habit learning, motor control, and motivation,” according to his website. A prime interest of Dr. Rebec’s is brain changes among the addicted, which led him to experimentation.

He got some lab rats addicted to various substances, mainly alcohol and cocaine. Then he exposed the addicted rats to some sights and sounds associated with the substance(s). What he found was that glutamate levels in addicted rats were affected by the sights and sounds, and that these rats craved whichever substance they were addicted to after exposure.

Such stimuli that cause an addict, or recovering addict, to crave that substance to which he or she is addicted to are called cues. Perhaps an example will further clarify. Let’s say Jill is a cocaine addict. She does it three nights a week, always at Brit’s and always with a six-pack of Special Brew beer. So, two of Jill’s cues to abuse cocaine are Brit’s place and six-packs of Special Brew, and all she has to do is see even a picture of either and there’s a real good chance she’ll think about cocaine.

The aforementioned study, conducted by members of Indiana University (IU), shows how this process of recognizing cues and then subsequently abusing substances involves glutamate. Now, you might be saying to yourself that Dr. Rebec already did that. Yes, he did, but only in mice. The IU team has proven it in human beings.

The Indiana University Study

You may be familiar with what an MRI is. It stands for magnetic resonance imaging, and it’s used to form pictures of specific sections of the anatomy. Well, the IU team used something called ‘in vivo magnetic resonance spectroscopy,’ or MRS. It’s similar in concept and in application to an MRI, but an MRS is capable of measuring the body’s chemical levels over time.

For example, in the IU study, a total of 35 participants were studied. Of them, 17 were alcoholics and 18 were not. The participants were given an MRS and simultaneously were shown visual drinking cues, such as a photo of a glass of beer, or people drinking at a party. Each participant was also shown what were called ‘neutral photos,’ presumably of things like trees or water – anything that would not normally cue someone to drink alcohol. The MRS was all the while measuring each participant’s glutamate levels.

According to the source, linked above: “The study found a decrease of the chemical in the brain of people with alcohol abuse disorder after they were shown cues associated with drinking — such as a photo of alcohol in a glass — compared to when they viewed neutral photos. Individuals without the disorder showed no change in glutamate levels when viewing the same images.”

This might not seem like much to the average person at first glance. Honestly, when this writer first read about the topic, nothing mesmerizing came to mind about what could be implied here… until a quote from IU Psychological and Brain Sciences Professor Sharlene Newman: “This is the first study to document changes in glutamate levels during exposure to alcohol cues in people with alcohol use disorders and shines a spotlight on glutamate levels as an important target for new therapies to treat the condition.”

Therefore, building on the work done by Dr. Rebec, the IU team was able to show definitively that when exposed to cues, alcoholics experience an imbalance in glutamate levels. This is treatable, given some time and some more research.

Bigger Implications

Cues are an extremelysignificant source of relapses, not just for alcoholics but for addicts of all types. This is important information when you consider the fact that nearly 90% of recovering alcoholics relapse within the first four years after stopping. Think about what life would be like for a recovering alcoholic who can see a beer commercial, or a whiskey bottle advertisement in a magazine, and not immediately feel a craving to consume.

Newman continued on her point about the study’s implications, adding: “Scientists can now confidently target glutamate levels in the brain as they develop new treatments for alcoholism and other forms of addiction.” The IU study is new – literally published on the 12th of February, 2018. And it’s the first of its kind. Hopefully more studies are done, for all types of addiction, and if glutamate continues to be the controller of cue-response for recovering addicts, we could have a seriously positive change coming in the near future.

Unfortunately for those who are recovering from alcoholism right now, a medicine to control glutamate levels upon being exposed to cues does not yet exist. However, what does exist is this article, and what follows are some tips and guidelines on how to avoid relapse via cues when recovering from alcoholism or any other addiction.

Avoiding the Three S’s

The three S’s of relapse are sights, sounds, and situations. We’re going to include human cues (such as a best friend being a trigger for using) with situations. Obviously it’s impossible to complete shut out all that makes you crave something, but we hope these tips and guidelines can help you on your way.


If you’re a food addict, maybe it’s the billboard of a Big Mac on the highway. If you’re a gambling addict, maybe it’s that one magazine ad for that one casino that gets you every time. If you’re an alcoholic, maybe it’s that neon sign for that one bar you like, or seeing someone carrying a six-pack or twelve-pack. You get the point. Visual cues are perhaps the hardest to avoid, because at least for those addicted to legal things, they’re everywhere. Beer commercials and bars are virtually omnipresent in this country.

That being said, you know where your own visual cues are. Take a different route home from work. Make sure when you’re about to pass that sign that you stare at the car in front of you. Don’t flip through that magazine anymore. Don’t walk down the beer aisle when you go shopping. Short of closing your eyes, there are plenty of ways to avoid the cues you know.

As far as for those you don’t know, like accidentally seeing someone sip a beer, or a TV commercial popping on (inevitably), the bottom line is discipline. Maybe create something you repeat in your head when it happens, like a mantra of sorts. Say, “I do not need that s***!” over and over, or something like that. If that’s too corny for you, try creating something else in place of the substance. For example, every time you see a visual cue and feel the urge to use because of it, call your significant other or best friend, or immediately play your favorite cell phone game. Distracting yourself is allowed.


This is a hard one to avoid as well, but it’s possible. Sound cues could be anything from a song that makes you want to party to hearing the ‘pop’ of a cap being taken off of a glass bottle. If you have to go so far as to avoid the radio or putting songs that are cues for you off to the side, do it. You could even wear headphones and listen to (non-cueing) music whenever you feel like you’re in a place that could have sound cues. We hope that makes sense.

Each and every addict has cues that are individual to him or her. However, there are some cues that are essentially universal, and regarding sounds, there is one: the sound of a lighter being used. Cigarette addicts, marijuana addicts, crack addicts, and heroin addicts who inject are all quite familiar with the sound of a lighter. Perhaps this is impossible to avoid fully, but using a mantra or distracting yourself, as mentioned for visual cues, could prove useful.


This is the big one. Situational cues basically cover all cues. Do not place yourself in a situation where you know there are going to be cues. Avoid parties with drinking if you’re a recovering alcoholic. Avoid a Cypress Hill concert if you are a recovering marijuana addict. Some situational cues are obvious. Others are not, such as if you are attending a work party and your co-workers are drinking. Here you have visual cues, sound cues, and peer pressure all at once. You don’t want to not go to a work party, especially since in some companies, attendance and participation at these sorts of things is considered part of the means to climbing the corporate ladder.

So what do you do?

If you feel comfortable enough explaining to them that you are a recovering alcoholic, perhaps they will find a way to accommodate you. If you simply can’t find it in you to tell them, or you fear doing so, our best recommendation is to seek out and mingle with those who are clearly not drinking. Plus, it could be a good way to meet new people!

Sometimes, though, addicts are cued to abuse simply by being in the presence of someone. We call these human cues. If you are a recovering addict and you associate certain people only with (or mostly with) the substance you’re recovering from, avoid them. Avoid them at all costs. If he or she is a true friend, he or she will understand and once the time is appropriate, you can begin socializing with him or her again. A friendship should never end because of one friend not being able to be around the other friend due to substance abuse recovery.

In Conclusion

The findings of the IU study are hopefully the start to a scientific cure for cue-response when it comes to recovering addicts. You know how when you either start or end a relationship, certain songs become more significant? Cues are like that when you quit a substance you’re addicted to. They’ll seemingly be everywhere. However, you are never alone. Seek professional treatment for your addiction today.