Cure for alcoholism could be close after brain protein discovery

6 Jun 2018

Image: Voyagerix/Shutterstock

Its debilitating effects can be seen across the world, but now a new discovery in a key brain protein could help find a cure for alcoholism.

It is no secret that Ireland in particular as a culture has a strong association with drinking, resulting in the country regularly topping European polls on binge drinking among young people.

However, it isn’t just Ireland that is having a problem with excessive drinking and the development of alcoholism among people of all ages. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Houston believes it may have found a way to help those who have developed alcoholism as a result.

In a paper published to eNeuro, chemist Joydip Das and his team believes the key to curing alcoholism might be found in a protein in the brain called Munc13-1 which binds to alcohol.

The binding process takes place in a brain synapse where one nerve cell, or neuron, passes a signal to the other and.

In this particular instance, the binding takes place in the presynaptic space, a much-understudied portion of the synapse mechanism.

When an alcoholic goes on a binge, it creates widespread and long-lasting changes in neural activity, altering both presynaptic and postsynaptic activity.

This latest work undertaken by Das and other researchers has been done using the Drosophila fly genetic model system which offers a simple model, but various similarities. In these flies, the activated protein Dunc13 is the equivalent to Munc13-1.

‘We need to develop a pill’

A reduction in Dunc13, Das said, produces a behavioural and physiological resistance to the sedative effects of ethanol, making it an important component in the development of a potential alcoholism drug.

“We need to develop a pill that would inhibit alcohol binding to Munc13-1 and reduce its activity,” Das said.

“Based on our results so far, this would likely reduce the formation of tolerance, making it harder to become addicted to alcohol.”

This news follows another study by a team from Indiana University looking at the science behind alcohol addiction, leading to the discovery that the neurotransmitter glutamate plays a role in some alcohol cravings.

Published in the Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism, the study is the first to document changes in glutamate levels during exposure to alcohol cues in people with alcohol use disorders.

In doing so, it helps shine a spotlight on glutamate levels as an important target for new therapies to treat the condition.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic