Medical research funded by the Recovery Act has identified a genetic link that could prove effective in treating alcoholism, a disease that afflicts 8 million Americans.
With the help of a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, scientists at the Mayo Clinic explored why only some alcoholics respond positively to acamprosate, a drug that reduces alcohol cravings by maintaining the brain’s chemical balance during withdrawal.
Suspecting a genetic influence of some sort, researchers conducted experiments that revealed a particular gene affects the response to acamprosate.
The gene makes a protein called ENT1 that controls the flow of a chemical in and out of brain cells in response to alcohol. Everyone has the protein, but some people have a variation of it. Those who have a variation, the researchers found, are more likely to become alcoholics.
Experiments in mice revealed that acamprosate worked most effectively in reducing alcohol consumption in mice that lacked ENT1 but had no effect on mice that did have the ENT1 protein. Also, magnetic resonance imaging of the mice’s brain area affected by addiction called the nucleus accumbens—which can’t be imaged in humans— showed that acamprosate had a different effect on that area in mice lacking ENT1 than those having it.
The researchers also found that mice without ENT1 and people with the specific variant of ENT1 are more prone to the dangerous seizures that can accompany alcohol withdrawal in lifelong heavy drinkers.
Scientists believe the results of the research will help lead to development of treatments that will be more individualized and targeted, and thus more successful.
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