I personally am not an expert - I just live with a recovering alcoholic, which only classifies me as an interested party - but my resident alcoholic is a very studious sort and he does keep up with the literature, so I asked him if he could give me some useful links to pass on to Georgie. He gave me the following email, which is such a comprehensive review of good current sources that I'm reproducing it here in full, in hopes that Georgie and anyone else may find it useful:
Here are all sorts of links. Read through them and decide what to send along to Curtis and company.
As I think I mentioned, the best popular introduction to the physiology of addiction I've seen is in the book that went along with the HBO Addiction Series. Much of that information is on the HBO addiction website: http://www.hbo.com/addiction/ Follow the button on top labeled "Understanding Addiction". It's been a while since I read the book and I don't think I ever did more than skim the web site but I think the basics are there.
I remember being fascinated by this 45 minute video presentation: http://videocast.nih.gov/ram/ccgr121306.ram
The common thread in both of the above is Dr. Nora Volkow, who is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and did a great deal of pioneering brain imaging work on addiction while at Brookhaven National Lab.
This article in SF Gate was pretty good too: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/11/MNGDEO2QOC1.DTL&feed=rss.news The picture is great. It's complex but it captures all the basics. This came out right after Gavin Newsom sought help with alcohol.
To understand what the addiction feedback loop is working on, it is helpful to know how the brain operates. I found this article on "normal" brain function really interesting: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_18_156/ai_57799547/ There is nothing on addiction here, but this article clearly lays out that the brain operates by having a bunch of default habits and an interrupt system to cut them off where they are not appropriate. It this seems very natural for addiction to work by the any mix of mechanisms that builds drug-reinforced habits and/or weakens the interrupt mechanism.The single biological factor that's been most linked with addiction has been an allele associated with the brain chemical dopamine and in particular the D2 dopamine receptor. These are highly involved in the brain's pleasure and reward system that plays a role in those drug-reinforced habits. Dopamine shows up in that SF gate picture. A 1990 paper all but said there was an alcoholism gene (well, allele). This article (http://www.faqs.org/abstracts/Health/D2-dopamine-receptor-gene-is-associated-but-not-linked-with-alcoholism.html) is part of the follow-on discussion, and a far as I can tell, this is not too far from the view today: it's part of the explanation but not the whole explanation. As you can imagine, there has been lots of back and forth since in the research community. Do a search on "D2 dopamine receptor alcoholism" and you'll find a very mixed story. And having done that search, I like the discussion that starts at the bottom of the page here: http://books.google.com/books?id=UzhXJ4l3OBYC&printsec=frontcover#PPA97 I'm going to order the book.
At a slightly more complex level is this Scientific American Article: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=seeking-the-connections-alcoholism-and-our-genes&page=1
And if anyone believes there is one type of alcoholic, I think this http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/jun2007/niaaa-28.htm puts that simple notion to rest. I've got the whole article, not just this press release.