Reaching for a glass of wine following a long day is a habit enjoyed by millions.
But scientists think they may have solved the mystery of why that one glass could turn into a drinking problem — it is all down to how we cope with stress.
They have discovered that stress-related problem drinking only occurs in people who have a specific combination of brain functioning.
Previous studies have focused on how the pleasure we get from drinking alcohol activates the reward centres of the brain.
But this study found a desire for pleasure coupled with a low sense of risk could lead to problems with alcohol in future. Scientists carried out MRI scans on 200 university students to look at the differences in the functioning of reward and threat circuits in their brain.
While coping with problems such as failing exams and bad relationships, only those with a heightened drive to seek immediate reward coupled with a weaker sense of risk were likely to consume increased amounts of alcohol.
Senior author Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said: “Imagine the push and pull of opposing drives when a mouse confronts a hunk of cheese in a trap.
“Too much drive for the cheese and too little fear of the trap leads to one dead mouse.”
He added: “We’re very excited about these findings as they nicely bring together our parallel research on individual differences in threat and reward processes.”
Yuliya Nikolova, lead author of the study, said the findings could help those particularly at risk from alcohol and drug abuse disorders in the wake of stress.
She added that, in future, doctors could see if someone was susceptible to developing a stress-related drink problem and intervene.
The research was published in the journal Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders.