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Channeling alcohol dependence: A new class of drugs to treat alcohol addiction

A recent study suggests a new method for modulating alcohol consumption which could lead to the development of new drugs that target alcohol dependence. The results of the study were published on Nov. 26, 2013 in the journal Nature Communications.

Mutations in the g-aminobutyric acid receptor (GABA-R) promote alcohol consumption.
Mutations in the g-aminobutyric acid receptor (GABA-R) promote alcohol consumption.
Anita P. Kuan
Mouse model exhibits strong preference for alcohol resulting from a mutation in GABA-R. The mutation causes spontaneous GABA ion channel opening.

In Connecticut, there are about 12,500 DUI arrests annually (~1.2 million in the U.S, 2011 data). Drunk driving fatalities cost Connecticut taxpayers $634 million in subsidies. Drunk driving cost the U.S. $132 billion a year.

Heavy drinkers are at greater risk for alcohol abuse and dependence. People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who wait until age 21.

When consumed rapidly and in large amounts, alcohol can also result in coma and death. Other immediate adverse effects of alcohol can include:

  • impaired judgment
  • reduced reaction time
  • slurred speech
  • unsteady gait

There are many chronic and acute health effects caused by excessive drinking, including binge and heavy drinking. Chronic health consequences include:

  • liver cirrhosis
  • pancreatitis
  • various cancers, including cancer of the liver, mouth, throat, larynx, and esophagus
  • high blood pressure
  • psychological disorders.

Acute health consequences of excessive drinking can include:

  • motor vehicle injuries
  • falls
  • domestic violence
  • rape
  • child abuse

Currently, there are three FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)-approved medications for the treatment of alcohol dependence; each of which has its side effects and drawbacks:

  • disulfram (an older drug that blocks the metabolism of alcohol and causes nausea);
  • acamprosate (helps support abstinence and can ease symptoms of withdrawal); and
  • naltrexone (helps people reduce heavy drinking).

Alcohol dependence is a common debilitating disorder with genetic and environmental influences. The ion channel GABA is important for neurotransmission (sending signals in the brain) and is essential for the normal functions of the nervous system. This recent study found preference for alcohol is associated with specific mutations in the receptors for this ion channel (GABA-R). For more details on this study, view the photos in the slideshow above.

These data reveal a new link between GABA-R function and increased alcohol consumption. These studies were carried out in laboratory animals. If these results translate to humans, they could lead to a better understanding of alcohol abuse and the development of new type of drug to treat alcohol addiction.

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