Alcohol Dependence Linked to Lack of Enzyme, Study Finds

By Kelly Burch 09/01/16

The research findings may lead to new therapies to curb excessive drinking. 

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Alcohol Dependence Linked to Lack of Enzyme, Study Finds

Researchers in Sweden say the lack of an important enzyme in the brain may inhibit impulse control, contributing to alcoholism. 

Whether or not you're a drinker, we all know that alcohol dulls one's ability to control impulses. Scientists have hypothesized that impaired function in the frontal lobe of the brain was partially to blame for alcohol dependence, since the frontal lobe has been known to affect decision-making and impulsivity. 

However, this is the first time scientists have discovered a specific molecule that can explain the impairment, according to the International Business Times. In research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers showed that when the enzyme, PRDM2, was switched off in the nerve cells of rats, the animals were more prone to developing a dependence on alcohol. 

Enzymes are molecules that catalyze reactions in living organisms and cells. Researchers had a theory that PRDM2 affected impulse control in the nerve cells in the brain's frontal lobe. To prove this, they disrupted PRDM2 production in the brains of rats that were already alcohol dependent. The change made the rats more likely to consume more alcohol, even if doing so had unpleasant physical affects. Rats who had been dependent in the past, but were not currently dependent, were more likely to relapse when the enzyme was reduced. 

Researchers believe that PRDM2 affects how impulse control signals are sent through the brain. "PRDM2 controls the expression of several genes that are necessary for effective signaling between nerve cells," lead author Markus Heilig told the Times. "When too little enzyme is produced, no effective signals are sent from the cells that are supposed to stop the impulse."

To be sure that reduced amounts of PRDM2 was a cause—rather than a consequence—of alcohol dependence, the researchers repeated the study on rats that were not alcohol dependent. That population also showed less impulse control after PRDM2 production was stopped in the brains. 

The researchers hope that in the long term, understanding the precise brain chemistry surrounding addiction will help innovators develop better treatments for drug and alcohol dependence. In the short term, however, head researcher Heilig said the study showed that addiction has a biological basis, and should not be stigmatized. 

"We see how a single molecular manipulation gives rise to important characteristics of an addictive illness," he said. "Over the long term, we want to contribute to developing effective medicines, but over the short term the important thing, perhaps, is to do away with the stigmatization of alcoholism."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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