Alcohol is America’s drug of choice. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that there are over 17.5 million Americans suffering from either alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. That’s one in twelve of us. Nearly half (43%) of the people in this country consider themselves drinkers. When you consider just how dangerous alcohol truly is, it becomes no wonder that there are 88,000 deaths annually attributed to alcohol.
The reason so many of us drink is because alcohol is considered one of the planet’s most addictive substances. Alcohol works by forcing the brain to produce pleasure by manipulating brain cells. Over time, the brain becomes used to this manipulation, requiring us to consume more and more for the same effect. Essentially, this means that alcohol makes the brain think we’re doing something good, and the brain learns to want alcohol. It manipulates the brain’s reward system. Some people become dependent on alcohol, and this is called alcoholism. It’s a vicious cycle of ‘make the brain happy with alcohol, make the brain want more alcohol.’
Stop this desire and stop alcoholism, right? It turns out some researchers from Texas A&M University may have figured out how to make the brain stop wanting alcohol. The catch: it would mean introducing a virus to the body. First, let’s gather a better understanding of how this part of the brain works and what alcohol does to it.
Part of how the brain works is by the transfer of information between brain cells, called neurons. The information is carried chemically by neurotransmitters. There are many different types of neurons, and there are many different types of neurotransmitters, all with their own jobs, and they control everything we do, from blinking and breathing to taking a math test. Every decision we make, every time we feel hungry, every conversation we have, all involve the exchange of neurotransmitters. See the picture below for a better understanding of how this works in the brain.
Information moves from the axon part of a neuron, (in this case a nerve cell in the brain), to the receptors on the dendrite part of a neuron. Think of it as a game of telephone, except extremely accurate. Just the right amount of neurotransmitters is transferred in order for us to function as humans. However, when alcohol is introduced to the system, things go all haywire. Some neurotransmitters are over-released, and some receptor sites become blocked. One of the main neurotransmitters involved in the consumption of alcohol is dopamine.
Dopamine and Alcohol
There is a function of the brain that involves rewarding certain behavior with pleasure. The good feelings associated with activities such as eating, having sex, or being on a carnival ride are all caused by the brain’s reward system. What happens is dopamine gets released and received by neurons, carrying the information of pleasure throughout the rest of the body. Dopamine is essentially the pleasure neurotransmitter.
Another activity that causes higher levels of dopamine in the brain is alcohol consumption. According to Medical Daily, not only does alcohol consumption increase dopamine levels, it also wears down dopamine receptors in the brain over time. This means that eventually continued alcohol abuse “would ultimately interfere with the brain’s ability to use dopamine, and subsequently inhibit the individual’s ability to feel pleasure.” That is, unless more and more alcohol is consumed, leading to the vicious cycle that is alcoholism.
The Texas A&M Study
Researchers from the Texas A&M University Health Science Center recently found that “alcohol changes the way information is processed through specific types of neurons in the brain, encouraging the brain to crave more alcohol.” The specific neurons being referred to are found in a region of the brain called the striatum, which plays a major role in the brain’s reward system. Dopamine receptors are high in number inside the striatum, and therefore alcohol abuse changes this region for the worse over time.
The researchers then took their study one step further and “identified a way to mitigate these changes and reduce the desire to drink using a genetically engineered virus.”
Part 1: Changes to the Striatum
The striatum processes sensory information. What we see, touch, hear, smell and taste all passes through this region as information. The striatum also controls motivational behavior due to its high number of dopamine receptors. Because alcohol increases the amount of dopamine released, the striatum is affected majorly by alcohol abuse.
Two types of neurons exist in the striatum: D1 and D2. Consider the D1 neurons to be green lights, encouraging behavior, and consider the D2 neurons to be red lights, inhibiting behavior. Dopamine increases D1 activity while suppressing D2 activity.
This means dopamine encourages engaging in a behavior rather than refraining from a behavior. Alcohol consumption, especially when heavy, increases dopamine flow, and therefore “can hijack the reward system because it increases dopamine levels in the striatum.” Alcohol abuse can leave the green light on and the red light off. “This is why heavy alcohol use pushes you to drink to excess more and more.”
Part 2: Stopping these Changes (The Experiment)
Mice are used in laboratory experiments because they are 95-98% genetically identical to humans. In the Texas A&M experiment, mice were presented with two bottles, one water and the other a 40 proof mixture of water and alcohol. The alcoholic water was offered every other day, leaving the mice free to choose which to drink from. Most mice developed alcoholism.
Then, a genetically engineered virus was introduced to the mice. The process is called viral mediated gene transfer, and “has become a standard and indispensable technique in molecular biology,” according to Science Magazine. Put very basically, the process involves infecting someone with a virus on purpose because whatever the virus does actually benefits the person’s current medical situation. It is very similar to the concept behind flu shots. However, as opposed to creating an immunity, viral mediated gene transfer causes changes in the brain, some of which are beneficial.
The Texas A&M experiment with mice is an excellent example. Remember D1 and D2 neurons, the green light and the red light? Mice have them too. The virus the researchers introduced to the mice manipulated these neurons to “express a specific protein.” Once expressed, they “injected the mice with a chemical that recognizes and binds to it. This binding can inhibit or promote activity in these neurons, letting us turn the green light off or turn the red light back on.” What the researchers discovered next could be the first step toward a giant leap in medicinal alcohol treatment.
Step 3: The Results
By being able to either turn the green light off (inhibit D1 neurons) or turn the red light on (excite D2 neurons), the researchers discovered exactly what the hoped they would from the beginning. They measured how much of the alcoholic water the mice consumed prior to being introduced to the virus. Then they measured that amount against how much they consumed after being introduced. Whether they turned the green light off or turned the red light on, the mice “successfully reduced alcohol drinking levels and preference for alcohol…”
As usual in the world of science, big news is not exactly covered by the media. However, the implications here are monumental regarding treatment for alcohol abuse. Medication already exists that is meant to fight alcoholism. Disulfiram makes you feel sick to your stomach when you consume alcohol. Naltrexone blocks certain receptors in the brain in order to prevent any pleasure derived from alcohol. Acamprosate helps restore the chemical imbalance caused by stopping alcohol when addicted. However, no drug exists that can truly prevent the desire for more alcohol. This recent Texas A&M study is a definite step one toward that drug.
The Future of Alcoholism Treatment?
The answer is yes, maybe, and probably not, all at the same time. Yes because once a scientific potential is established, human beings usually figure out a way to make it a reality. (See the moon landing of 1969.) Maybe because even if a drug is invented that acts like this genetically engineered virus and stops the craving for alcohol, there will likely still be alcoholism. Probably not because, as said in the study, “…using a virus to treat alcoholism in humans is probably still a long way off.”
If you take the average of yes, maybe, and probably not, you’re left on the positive side. There is not an absolute ‘no’ involved here. That is because alcoholism is not at all the first disease shown to be curable by (or at least vulnerable to) a genetically engineered virus.
Evidence it’s Possible
There is a virus scientists call M13 that has been discovered, as published by PBS, to be a possible cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, E. coli and more. Twelve years ago, chemist Chris Dobson predicted there should be some sort of virus that could help cure Parkinson’s and other related diseases. During the same year, 2004, Beka Solomon, a professor of sciences at Tel Aviv University, discovered that M13 is extremely capable of fighting E. coli, and also demonstrates abilities to fight the changes that occur in the body that cause both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
There are countless varieties of viruses, and M13 is known as a phage, short for bacteriophage. As stated in the article by PBS, phages “have only one purpose: to pass on genes.” Viruses infect, reproduce, and essentially take over the genetic makeup of whichever cells they are inside of. Obviously viruses are usually harmful to the human body, but in certain situations, they prove to be beneficial when used medically. This discovery by Solomon shows that viruses can be used to effectively treat diseases. When should alcoholism be left off the list?
Treatment Facilities: Still the Best Answer
Referring to the Texas A&M study, the conclusions point toward facilitated treatment being the best answer for fighting alcoholism and all other substance addictions. Consider this quote taken directly from the publication of the study:
“Most people with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from treatment, which can include a combination of medication, counseling and support groups. Although medications, such as Naltrexone… can be effective, none of them can accurately target the specific neurons or circuits that are responsible for alcohol consumption… But while we’ve demonstrated that this process [using viruses] can reduce the desire to drink in mice, we’re not yet at the point of using the same method in humans.”
Treatment facilities continue to be the absolute best way to fight alcoholism, a disease that infects one in every twelve Americans, adult or not. (Think about how many Americans aged 20 or less consume alcohol daily. You don’t need statistics to know this is true.) But the future, as always, holds promising things. The fact that scientists have found a virus that could possibly reduce (if not eliminate) the desire for alcohol means there could eventually be a cure-all for alcoholism. That’s 88,000 lives that could potentially be saved every single year in this country alone.
Every day science continues to find new ways to improve life on earth, human and beyond. Right now though, facilitated treatment is the way to go. In treatment, you receive the benefits of doctors and medical staff 24/7, medicine, therapy, counseling, direction, group discussions, and countless other means of battling addiction.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, seek treatment today.