Posted on February 20, 2019 by firstname.lastname@example.org
Alcoholism is a curious phenomenon. In the US, about 70 percent of people drink at least occasionally, more than half have had a drink in the past month, and more than a quarter have engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Despite drinking being so common, only about 10 to 15 percent will develop an alcohol use disorder. Something separates people who drink a lot from people who can’t stop drinking. We know that genetics plays a significant role. From twin studies and other research, we know that about half of your addiction risk comes from having a parent or sibling who has an alcohol use disorder. We know less about the specific mechanisms that lead to addiction. However, a recent study may shed some light on a pathway responsible for alcoholism.
Researchers at Brown University have isolated a pathway in fruit flies that is responsible for creating rewarding memories around alcohol. These rewarding memories are at the heart of addiction. They’re what cause you to wake up feeling hungover and terrible, but still decide to drink that night anyway. The rewarding memories are what cause someone who has been sober for months or years to crave a drink. Figuring out how alcohol helps create these memories may be a major step in helping people stay sober.
While animal research in addiction is typically done in mice or rats, this study was done on fruit flies. The fruit fly genome is well understood and the short reproductive cycle of fruit flies makes genetic changes easier to trace. What’s more, despite obvious anatomical differences, the pathway in question is similar to that of humans. In the study, the researchers taught fruit flies to locate alcohol and in the process, switched off various genes. While a normal fruit fly would return to the alcohol, again and again, the flies that had a certain gene deactivated lost interest.
By studying the fruit fly behavior, the team discovered that the Notch protein played a central role in deciding whether a fly was attracted to alcohol. This Notch protein affects the expression of the dopamine-2-like receptor, which is involved with determining whether a memory is pleasant or painful. We don’t yet know whether the mechanism is the same in humans, but the Notch pathway is highly preserved across species and does exist in humans too, although the effects may not be the same.
This study gives us valuable insight into perhaps the most common and destructive addiction in the world. However, addiction is complex and there are several important factors including trauma, mental health issues, and adverse childhood experiences. While understanding the mechanisms that make some people remember their drinking experiences fondly may prove helpful, it’s also important to address the other factors that lead to addiction.
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