Brain Protein May Be Used in Alcoholism Treatment
> 6/12/2008 9:53:42 AM

Overcoming alcohol dependence is a challenging prospect for most, and many alcoholics relapse before successfully breaking their addiction. According to new research appearing in this month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a brain protein known as GDNF may influence alcohol-related behaviors and could be useful in helping those who struggle with alcohol dependency. The study expands upon earlier work conducted by researchers affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco. In 2005, they found that higher levels of GDNF could reduce alcohol consumption. In the current study, they describe new findings on GDNF’s effects and report that the protein may prevent relapse.

The investigation centered upon a specific area of the brain thought to affect motivation and reward— the ventral tegmental area, or VTA. Using rats, the researchers injected GDNF directly into the VTA and observed how this affected the subsequent behaviors of two different groups. All the rats involved had been trained to seek out alcohol, but the rats of one group had a history of excessive drinking. GDNF’s effect was similar between the two groups, however, and within ten minutes of administering the treatment, the researchers saw reductions in the number of times rats from either group pressed a lever that dispensed alcohol. Boosting GDNF caused a decrease in alcohol consumption, and it also prevented relapse. When the rats were reintroduced to alcohol after having been weaned, they returned to their old drinking behaviors. GDNF injections suppressed this behavior, and rats who had received the treatment did not resume their old interest in alcohol or seek the substance out.

GDNF may be an important factor in new medications developed to aid in the treatment of alcoholism, as another of the study’s findings illustrates. In an additional test, the researchers exposed the rats to a lever that administered sugar-water. The rate at which the rats pressed the lever remained steady over time, even when they had been injected with GDNF. This indicates that while GDNF influences the motivation to drink alcohol, it does not affect other pleasure-seeking behaviors, which, the researchers, explain, has been the case with medications designed to work on the pleasure pathways within the brain.

Alcoholism is a debilitating condition, and for those wishing to give up their addiction, the road to recovery can be incredibly difficult. Treatment can help, and with further study, researchers may be able to use what we now know about GDNF to develop safe and effective medications that, along with therapy, may help alcoholics to successfully stop their drinking behavior and avoid relapse. As researchers continue to test GDNF and search for other factors involved in addiction, we will discover new ways to support individuals who struggle with alcoholism as they work to improve their health and their lives.

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