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THE DISEASE CONCEPT OF ALCOHOLISM

by David L. Ohlms, MD

The following paper is distributed to patients at the Hanley-Hazelden Treatment Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

THIQ -- BIOCHEMICAL CULPRIT

It all started down in Houston, Texas with a medical scientist named Virginia Davis who was doing cancer research. For her studies she needed fresh human brain -- which is not widely available; you don't run down to the store and buy it. So she'd ride out with the Houston police in the early morning, and they would pass along Skid Row and collect the bodies of the winos who died overnight. Virginia would take the temperature of these bodies in a manner I'll leave to your imagination.

The warm bodies, so to speak, were rushed back to her hospital; there she removed the brains for her cancer research.

One day Virginia was talking to some doctors in the hospital cafeteria. She was telling them about some findings of her laboratory studies, and she said: "you know I never realized that all those winos used heroin as well as booze. "

Now these were hardened emergency room doctors; they just laughed at her . "C'mon Virginia", they told her. "These guys don't use heroin. They can hardly afford a bottle of cheap muscatel. "

Virginia shut up and went back to her lab. But she was unto something and she knew it. She had discovered in the brain of those chronic alcoholics a substance that is, in fact, closely related to heroin. This substance, long known to scientists was called TETRAHYDROLSOQUINOLINE or THIQ for short. When a person shoots heroin into his body, some of it breaks down and turns into this THIQ. But then these people hadn't been using heroin; they had just been simple alcoholics. So how did the THIQ get there? That's where Virginia's research was to lead her for the next few years.

When the normal adult drinker takes in alcohol, it's very rapidly eliminated at the rate of about one drink per hour. The body first converts the alcohol into something called ACETALDEHYDE. This is very toxic stuff, and if it were to buildup inside us, we would get violently sick; and indeed we could die. But Mother Nature helps us to get rid of acetaldehyde very quickly. She efficiently changes it into ACETIC Acid, which we will know as vinegar, and then changes it a couple more times -- into CARBON DIOXIDE and WATER -- which is happily eliminated through the kidneys and lungs. That's what happens to normal drinkers. It also happens with alcoholic drinkers, but they get what we might call a P.S.

What Virginia discovered in Houston, which has been extensively confirmed since, is that something additional happens in the alcoholic. In them, a very small amount of poisonous acetaldehyde is not eliminated; instead it goes to the brain where, through a very complicated biochemical process, it winds up as this THIQ I mentioned before. Researchers have found out fascinating things about THIQ. Let me tell you a little about them here.

FIRST, THIQ is manufactured right in the brain, and it only occurs in the brain of the alcoholic drinker; it doesn't happen in the brain of the normal social drinker of alcohol.

Second, THIQ has been found to be highly addictive. It was tried in experimental use with animals during the second World War, when we were looking for a pain killer less addictive than morphine. THIQ was a pretty good pain killer, all right, but it couldn't be used on humans. It turned out to be much more addictive than morphine. So scientists had to forget about it, and they've left it all these years up on some dusty shelf.

The third fascinating item about THIQ also has to do with addiction. There are, as you might know, certain kinds of rats that cannot be made to drink alcohol.

Put them in a cage with a very weak solution of vodka and water, and they'll refuse to touch it; they'll literally thirst to death before they agree to drink alcohol. But if you take the same kind of rat and put an unbelievably minute quantity of THIQ into that rat's brain -- one quick injection -- the animal will immediately develop a preference for alcohol over water. In fact he'll be happier if you mix his drinks with less and less water. So we've taken a teetotaling rat and made him into an alcoholic rat. And we needed was a smidgin' of THIQ.

Other studies have been done with monkeys, our closest animal relatives in medical terms. We've learned that once THIQ is injected into a monkey's brain, it stays there. You can keep a THIQed monkey dry , off alcohol, for as long as 7 years, then when you sacrifice him and study his brain, that weird stuff is still there. This exemplifies the progressiveness of the disease. The alcoholic who's been sober for 10-25 years, who then suddenly starts drinking again, will immediately show the same symptoms displayed years before.

THE PIECES BEGIN TO FIT

You see how beautifully these laboratory findings fit in with what we specialists in alcoholism have long noticed in our clinics. Uncle Jack is brought in, and he's drunk again, and even though it's slowly killing him, he somehow can't stop drinking.

When he's sober enough we'll get a family history. Yes, there are other alcoholics in his family; there's a family predisposition- an abnormality in the family body chemistry -- which we only saw the shadow of before. But now we see it much more clearly: it's a predisposition toward making THIQ.

Now alcoholics don't intend to make THIQ when they start drinking. They don't mean for their brains to manufacture something stronger than morphine -- they've been warned about the evils of narcotics all their lives. But they've heard a good deal less about the evils of alcoholism. Most normal Americans take a drink now and then, and the young alcoholics-to-be want to be normal. So they take a drink now and then, too. Unfortunately, the alcoholics-to-be aren't normal. That's too bad for them but it could have been a lot worse: they could have been born blind or with crippled arms or legs. On the other hand, of course, potential alcoholics certainly would know about the blindness or the crippling disability. But they don't know about the predisposition toward THIQ -- making their brain chemistry has inherited. Nobody knew about it until recently.

So a new generation of alcoholics have their first few drinks, and everything seems cool.

The alcoholic has his or her early drinks, and now we can go back to our little lesson in biochemistry. The alcoholic's body, like yours and mine, changes the alcohol into acetaldehyde, and then it changes most of that into carbon dioxide and water, which in the end it kicks through the kidneys and lungs. Except, of course, that alcoholic's bodies won't kick all these chemicals out. The alcoholic's brain likes them for some reason, and holds a few bits back and transforms them into THIQ.

So the alcoholics-to-be starts drinking, and he or she may well be very moderate at first. Just a few on Saturday nights. Maybe a couple beers with football games on T. V. Maybe a nip or two to calm down while fixing dinner for the family. Two or three drinks to quiet the jitters before high school graduation. In the beginning, the alcoholic-to-be only gets seriously drunk, say, once or twice a year . So far , so good. But all this time the alcoholic brain is humming away in there building its little cache of THIQ.

At some point, maybe sooner, maybe later , the alcoholic will cross over a shadowy line into a whole new way of life.

Now medical science still doesn't know where this line is still doesn't know how how much THIQ an individual brain will pile up before the big event happens. Some predisposed people cross the line while they're teenagers -- or earlier. It won't occur in others until they're 30 or 40 or maybe even retired. But once it does happen, the alcoholic will be as hooked on alcohol as he would have been hooked on heroin if he'd been shooting that instead- and for very similar chemical reasons. Now comes that loss of control.

Now the chronic, progressive, incurable nature is obvious to practically everyone who knows the alcoholic. Now it's all too clearly a disease. And now -- all too often -- it's a disease that will mainly get treated with other sedatives. Far too often alcohol addiction is treated with pills that keep the disease regulated. When we're done, if the alcoholic is still alive, he'll be about as functional as a THIQd rat.

GOOD NEWS!

Alcoholism is not the alcoholic's fault -- and that's good news. Today alcoholics can get proper treatment for the disease, and the treatment begins when we tell them these facts. The alcoholic patients I see are usually hugely relieved to hear that it's not their fault, because they've been carrying tons of guilt along with the alcoholism -- and that guilt was often worse than useless.

Now instead of guilt, the alcoholic person can take on some responsibility .Now that the alcoholic knows the facts, he or she can, with treatment, take the responsibility of stopping the drinking; alcoholics can refuse to put more THIQ in there brains and they can refuse to reactivate the THIQ that's already there. Alcoholics can't get rid of this THIQ, but they can, with treatment, be taught how to control it.

Alcoholics can learn how to live like normal, healthy grown ups again. That's good news for all of us. That's the best news any human being can ever expect.