In The Drinkers, painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1890, three men and a child huddle around a table as they glug down whatever’s in the pitcher in front of them. Their faces are focused, stern. Standing together, they still seem lonely, lost in the blues and greens the Dutch artist used to color them.
“They’re drinking because they’re unhappy,” says Adron Harris, the director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at the University of Texas at Austin. Perhaps they’ve crossed over to what he and other neuroscientists call “the dark side,” a reference to how chronic alcohol-abuse changes the circuitry of the brain. The more a person drinks, the more their brain rewires itself to crave alcohol. Eventually, the brain may only pay attention to alcohol, even as relationships, jobs, and health fall by the wayside.
“It’s no longer facilitating human interactions. It’s no longer giving pleasures,” Harris says. “It’s simply trying to get back toward normal.”
Alcohol addiction is as destructive today as it was in van Gogh’s time, but Harris believes there now might be an ideal way to overcome it—one that we’ve created without even realizing it. New prescription drugs that could help addicts wean themselves off alcohol might already exist, he says; it’s just that they’re used to treat other conditions. Because the brain cells of an alcoholic have different genes turned on than the brain cells in a non-alcoholic, Harris wants to find prescriptions drugs that can be repurposed to turn off the problem genes in an alcoholic’s brain, effectively wiping it of withdrawal symptoms.