PHILADELPHIA — Instead of completely banning alcohol from their lives, binge drinkers may just need to find a sense of purpose to keep themselves in check. Neurologists from the University of Pennsylvania say that reevaluating your life’s purpose could curb the overwhelming craving for alcohol. The findings open up new non-pharmaceutical strategies to reduce binge drinking among young adults.

In no secret that many college students like to party. Whether it’s to enjoy a night out or to celebrate the end of finals, young adults tend to encounter multiple cues and peer pressure to drink often. Despite not necessarily feeling it at the moment, however, binge drinking does add up over time. Studies show that heavy drinking can lead to a number of health problems, from heart disease to multiple types of cancer.

“College students are in a formative time in their lives where they are learning the norms around alcohol use and setting their own habits that will affect their health later in life,” says Yoona Kang, a research director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, in a university release. “So I think there’s a lot of preventive values in studying alcohol use in college populations.”

Previous research shows that a strong life purpose — the feeling that your life has personally meaningful values and goals — can improve your health. Having a purpose in life helped some overcome the crushing loneliness of lockdowns and isolation during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and made it easier to make healthy choices, according to researchers.

“Values and purposes can have powerful effects on how people think and behave,” says Kang. “And what’s interesting about this study is that we asked participants, ‘How much sense of purpose in life do you feel right now?’ Because your level of purpose can fluctuate day by day.”

Kang and her colleagues mapped the behavior and attitudes of 54 college students who filled out daily surveys for a month. The students answered questions ranging from their current level of purpose in life every morning and evening to how much they craved and drank alcohol.

“We focused on craving because it is one of the strongest predictors of actual drinking.

If you crave, then you’re more likely to drink,” Kang explains. “But just because you crave alcohol doesn’t mean that you’re going to go out and drink, so we wanted to know what’s nudging these social drinkers into drinking when they crave alcohol.”

Along with the questionnaires, the students had their brains scanned using functional MRI imaging.

The images gave the study authors a glimpse into how the brain responds to alcohol cues such as pictures of beer, wine, and liquor, or photos of people toasting at a party.

The team focused on brain activity in an area called the ventral striatum. The region plays a role in regulating rewards and cravings. People who displayed higher brain activity in the ventral striatum while looking at photos of alcoholic beverages were more likely to drink after craving alcohol.

When the researchers considered a person’s life purpose, however, they found an interesting trend. People who reported having a strong purpose in life did not drink more after seeing alcohol cues — even when their brains showed they were strongly craving alcohol. On the other hand, people who did not have a purpose were more likely to drink after craving alcohol.

Future research could use these findings to develop interventions focused on helping college students find their life’s purpose and reflect on what really matters. If so, there is potential to expand the study to a wider segment of the population.

The study is published in the journal Addiction.

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