Of mice and men: Could a genetically-engineered virus cure alcoholism?

An experimental treatment has seen incredible results in mice, with hopes it could one day soon treat men and women

Of mice and men: Could a genetically-engineered virus cure alcoholism?


Whether we like it or not, Ireland as a country has gained an international reputation as a country of heavy drinkers. Based on 2015 figures, every Irish person over the age of 15 drank the equivalent of 41 litres of vodka, 116 bottles of wine, or 445 pints of beer. Addiction to alcohol is a burden on many individuals and families in this country, but now a specially designed virus could prove the key to tackling those demons, if the promising results in mice are anything to go on.

While there is no single factor that leads to alcoholism, the disease is brought about by a spectrum of genetic, environmental, psychological and social issues each affecting a person and their drinking habits. But now a pair of Texas A&M researchers has worked on targeting one of the specific neurological aspects of alcoholism, focussing on specific neurons as a way of tackling the disease.

“Drinking alcohol may not change the whole brain and every neurone, but a neuron will be changed specifically,” professor Jun Wang told Vocativ. “We have to find this neurone and then we can target this neurone,” the academic added, outlining a type of “precision medicine” that would allow scientists to reduce alcohol consumption.

Finding the specific neurones is easier said than done, what with the brain made up of almost 100bn individual ones. Previous studies carried out by the team narrowed the field somewhat, determining that alcohol consumption affects a part of the brain known as the striatum, which is responsible for sensory and motor function. When we drink, the chemicals in alcohol cause the brain to overproduce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine, with over-consumption and alcoholism permanently changing the state of these neurones.

In their study, the researchers presented mice with the choice of two bottles, one which filled with plain water and another with 20% alcohol. When some of the mice started consuming the alcoholic bottle to excess, the team infected them with a genetically engineered virus, designed to carry genes to the specific neurones governing behaviour. Once in place, the scientists were then able to inject a chemical into the mice that would control the function of the neurones whose abnormal synaptic impulses were characteristic of alcoholism.

The results saw the mice greatly cut back on their alcohol consumption. “It is more than 50 percent,” Wang said. “That’s really a lot in scientific research. More than 25 percent is very significant. Here it’s more than 50.”

While all scientific research that sees promising results in mice comes with the glaring caveat that the subjects are different from mankind, the basic neuroscience of the striatum is the same in both species. Furthermore, this kind of gene therapy is already used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Prof Jun Wang said he believed that should this experimental process make the leap from mice to human beings, it would most likely see patients taking a drug to temporarily relieve alcohol cravings.

“When you’re craving, you’d have to take this drug with this virus,” he said, adding that patients would have to take it again when their cravings came back. “In the future, we hope to find a way to reverse the addictive behaviour. Although I believe this is far, far away, we’re starting to move in that direction.”

[H/T: Vocativ]

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