When Does a Moderate Drinker Turn into an Alcoholic?

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Although there are many factors which bring a person from being a moderate social drinker into an alcoholic, new research has found that a large part of the change could come down a tiny segment of genetic material.

Going Over the Edge

The study published in Molecular Psychiatry involves the work of Dorit Rob, PhD, Endowed Chair of Cell Biology of Addiction in Neurology at UC-San Francisco, and author Emmanuel Darcq, PhD, a former post-doctoral fellow currently working at McGill University in Canada. They examined genetic material known as a microRNA and a protein known as brain-derived neutotrophic factor (BDNF).

Rob and Darcq found that BDNF levels are increased when alcohol is consumed in moderation, thereby preventing alcohol use disorders. Those who drank heavily actually had decreased BDNF levels in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is the region of the brain associated with decision making. As BDNF levels dropped, there was also an increase in the amount of a microRNA called miR-30a-5p. However, mice treated with an inhibitor of miR-30a-5p eventually had their BDNF levels restored to normal and their alcohol consumption went back to a moderate amount.

Will this Data Help the Treatment Process?

“When there is a breakdown in [BDNF], uncontrolled excessive drinking develops, and microRNAs are a possible mechanism in this breakdown,” said Ron. “This mechanism may be one possible explanation as to why 10 percent of the population develop alcohol use disorders and this study may be helpful for the development of future medications to treat this devastating disease.”

Although medications for for alcohol abuse do exist, they have their own drawbacks. Most work by reducing the user’s sense of pleasure, essentially inhibiting the brain’s reward pathways. The resulting effects cause many patients to stop using the medication after short periods.

Teenagers and their Maturing Brains

The brain structures of teenagers could also provide insight into who might be more susceptible to alcohol abuse problems. Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center released their findings last month involving 135 pre-teen and teenaged boys and girls. They found that participants with a higher risk rate for alcohol abuse had significantly lower connectivity in the Executive Control Network (ECN) region of the brain, which helps process self-control and emotions, as well as lower connectivity between cortexes.

Learn how you can best help an alcoholic get sober.

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