Since the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous in the early 20th century, each decade has seen a growing body of research and understanding of addiction. Sobriety, once thought to be a matter of morals or willpower, has been recognized as addressing and treating a blend of genetics, environment, biology, and more. In fact, people who have a genetic link to a substance abuser are more likely to abuse substances themselves — and a recent British study has possibly identified a root cause of alcoholism in mice. Can a similar discovery in humans be far behind, and what are the implications for addiction rehab?
A Newcastle University study published in Nature Communications reports that a “single fault” in one gene that works in the brain can lead to alcohol addiction. The gene works in the nucleus accumbens — also called the “pleasure center” — and mice with a mutation “seek out and prefer” alcohol over water consistently, even after enduring inebriation. Mice without the mutation “shun” the alcohol and choose water instead, according to The Independent.
The mice with the mutation continued to ingest alcohol-laced water long after the obvious effects take place. The mutation, which affects the neurotransmitter GABA, causes a “leak” in a protein receptor that apparently makes alcohol more attractive by making its pleasurable effects stronger than in mice with normal genes. As the mice with the mutated genes consume alcohol, the chemical rewards increase, thus enhancing the desire to drink.
“The mice will actually work to get the alcohol, for much longer than we would have expected,” Dr. Quentin Anstee, a heptologist, reported to the paper. “They don’t get fed up, they keep on going and going.”
A Target for Treatment
Human brain makeup and chemistry is significantly more complex than that of a mouse. Although the Newcastle study’s result is a promising discovery, addiction science is likely years away from putting this information to real use in individuals addicted to alcohol or drugs. Nevertheless, the discovery paves the way toward exciting future developments in the treatment, and an understanding of alcoholism as well as addiction recovery.
The Newcastle study took 10 years to complete, with help from other British universities as well as the Mammalian Genetics Unit at Harwell, the Medical Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust.