Mouse Study Could Lead To A Pill That Squashes Cravings For Alcohol

By May Wilkerson 10/07/15

Can a link to binge drinking and alcoholism lead to medication that could stop the urge to drink?

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A new discovery about the link between binge drinking and alcoholism may help scientists create a medication for alcoholism that could eliminate the urge to drink altogether.

In a study on mice, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine examined the link between binge drinking and the increased odds of developing alcoholism. They found that by blocking an enzyme called ALDH1a1, the mice’s alcohol consumption and desire to drink was increased to the same level as mice who had gone through several rounds of “binge drinking.” But by restoring the ALDH1a1 levels, scientists were able to reverse this effect.

Currently, available medications for alcoholism have shown varying levels of success. Many, like antabuse, cause unpleasant side effects if the person taking them drinks alcohol, such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. "But these drugs don't reduce the craving—you still feel a strong urge to drink," said study author Jun Ding, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford.

Previous studies have shown that mutations in the genes for ALDH1a1 are associated with alcoholism, but scientists did not know why. In this study, researchers found that in certain nerve cells largely involved in addictive behaviors, ALDH1a1 is crucial to the manufacture of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which is the main inhibitory transmitter in the brain.

Ding said he thinks that when the brain releases GABA along with dopamine, this may prevent people from getting hooked on the pleasurable sensations associated with dopamine release.

This means that a drug that could increase the levels of ALDH1a1 could potentially restore the balance in the brain's neural circuitry that has been damaged by heavy alcohol consumption. This would allow a person who is addicted to alcohol to resume drinking moderately, or abstaining, without cravings.

Alcoholism currently affects an estimated 18 million people in the United States and 200 million across the globe. Research shows that binge drinking, classified as four drinks for women and five for men in about two hours, substantially increases the likelihood of developing alcoholism.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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