An international team of scientists has identified a type of protein that could be used for the treatment for alcoholism, according to a study published in the journal Science, and cited by ScienceDaily. The analysis links molecular transformations that occur in the brain with behaviors that are the result of addiction, such as choosing to continue drinking alcohol despite being aware that it is bad for health.
Researchers at Linkoping University in Sweden have created a system in which rats could choose to either press a lever that provided them with alcohol or a lever that provided them with sugar water. Although most rodents decided on the sweet option, 15% of the rats kept on pressing the lever that offered them alcohol, even though this action caused them a small electric shock.
The behavior of those lab rats that kept on opting for alcohol is similar to the alcohol addiction in humans, who, for example, continue to drink alcohol despite the negative consequences.
“We have to understand that a central feature of addiction is that you know it’s going to hurt you, it can even kill you, and yet something has gone wrong with motivational control, and you’re still doing it,” explained Markus Heilig, a professor at the Linkoping University, and the study’s leading author.
The scientists discovered a protein that might be involved in developing a treatment for alcoholism
To research the mechanism behind these addictive behaviors, the scientists looked at the expression of hundreds of genes located in five different areas of the brain. The most significant difference they observed was in the amygdala, which plays a vital role in emotional responses.
In rats that opted for alcohol, a single gene was expressed in lower quantities. The gene is the foundation for the GATA3 protein production, a protein that keeps at low levels the gamma-aminobutyric acid signal inhibitor (GABA) around the nerve cells.
In humans with alcohol addiction, GATA3 levels in the amygdala were lower than in people who are not suffering from any addiction. Heilig pointed out that a muscle relaxant drug based on baclofen suppresses the release of the GABA.
“We are currently working with a pharmaceutical company to try to develop a second-generation molecule as a candidate drug candidate for alcoholism, which is heading for this signaling pathway,” concludes Heilig.