Earlier this year, actor Brad Pitt told GQ about his recent decision to give up drinking. His alcohol problem had lasted over three decades; he admitted: “I can’t remember a day since I got out of college where I wasn’t boozing or had a spliff or something”.

The 53-year-old’s struggles with beating alcoholism sadly seem typical of difficulties that millions of people face with alcohol. Only a small fraction of them actually break their addiction, Live Science reports. However, why do so many people struggle where so few people succeed?

Where dopamine can have a chilling effect

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Swift has, speaking to Live Science, shed much light on why alcohol can form such a strong grip on the human mind. Swift, who is also an associate director at the Brown University Centre for Alcohol and Addiction Studies in the Rhode Island city of Providence, says that an addiction can emerge when alcohol consumption triggers the release of dopamine.

This is a neurotransmitter associated with such enjoyable and rewarding activities as having sex or eating a delicious meal. With this brain chemical’s release, the mind’s reward centre is affected, and so the drinker could continue to enjoy – and be interested in – alcohol.

Worse, should that person not stray from drinking frequently and heavily, the brain could become sensitised to dopamine’s release. Hence, that individual needs to consume even more alcohol than before if they want to continue enjoying the satisfaction which the drink has previously brought them. That’s where a simple liking of alcohol develops into an addiction.

Yes, you can get too excited

There is yet another significant way in which the brain can change as it is repeatedly exposed to alcohol. This is where the brain compensates for the slowing effects of the substance by making glutamate, one of the brain’s primary excitatory chemicals, more active. Basically, this means that the brain becomes more excited by alcohol – and stays excited even when alcohol is not being drunk.

This excitement and excessive mental activity could hamper the addiction sufferer’s ability to sleep. Alternatively, the person could grow in anxious feeling or develop the shakes. This individual could then have yet another reason to drink alcohol: the sedative effects that it provides for restraining the excitatory chemicals. It’s easy to see, then, how an addiction can escalate.

How can the addiction finally be broken?

Saying goodbye to alcoholism at last, as Pitt has done, is no small feat – because doing so becomes harder the longer and more often a sufferer has been drinking. Years of heavy drinking could even lead to permanent, unhelpful changes in the brain.

As a result, sufferers of chronic addiction usually have to entirely abandon alcohol for the rest of their lives if they wish to quit alcoholism for good. However, many sufferers might not have this level of knowledge about their problems. They could benefit from joining an alcohol treatment centre, which might prove to be what they need to turn things around.