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Can a New Simple Test Predict Alcoholism?

Scientists have developed a simple Pavlovian test that may identify alcoholic predisposition in the brain.

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The test works on mice. Will it work on
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By Chrisanne Grise

08/28/12

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A simple behavioral test may soon be able to predict whether individuals are predisposed towards being alcoholics—before they've even started drinking. Yale researchers used Pavlovian conditioning to experiment on mice, and found that those that reacted the most to food cues also displayed more alcoholism-related behaviors—including the inability to stop seeking alcohol and a tendency to relapse—but otherwise did not differ in food-seeking behavior.  “We are trying to understand the neurobiology underlying familial risk for alcoholism,” says Jane Taylor, psychology professor at the Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study, which is published in Nature Neuroscience. “What is encouraging about this study is that we have identified both a behavioral indicator and a molecule that explains that risk.” The team also identified a role for neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) and its modified form, PSA-NCAM, which are involved in the brain's ability to change and remap itself (called "brain plasticity"). The mice with low levels of PSA-NCAM in a particular area of the brain were unable to control their alcohol-seeking urges, while those with higher levels of the molecule appeared less addicted. “This would make sense since alcoholism is associated with a lack of neurobiological and behavioral plasticity,” Taylor says. “The brains of alcoholics seem to get stuck in the same patterns of activity.” This is not the first time scientists have sought to locate alcoholic predisposition in the brain; another recent study found that MRIs may be able to predict risky teen boozing before it happens.

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