Alcohol abuse is a major problem in the United States; according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, misuse of alcoholic beverages cost the United States nearly $250 billion in 2010 alone. As troubling as these figures are, relief might be on the way; a recent study has connected both binge drinking and alcoholism to an enzyme malfunction.
Altering Alcohol Cravings
In short, enzymes are proteins tasked with accelerating chemical reactions inside cells. Researchers from Stanford University’s School of Medicine believe that a certain enzyme in particular could be linked to alcohol abuse. For their study, the Stanford team targeted a certain protein known as ALDH1a1.
Using a group of laboratory mice as test subjects, the authors prevented ALDH1a1 from working normally. Consequently, the rodents’ thirst for alcohol dramatically increased; in fact, they began to both consume and desire this substance as much as mice who had repeatedly binged on alcohol. The researchers were able to undo this harmful habit by replenishing their subjects’ ALDH1a1 levels.
Why the Link?
So what could possibly explain the connection between ALDH1a1 enzymes and alcohol consumption? The authors of the study note that the protein appears to play a key role in nerve cells linked to addictive behaviors. Specifically, ALDH1a1 enzymes may contribute to the production of a certain neurotransmitter, or a chemical tasked with carrying impulses to nerves, muscles, organs or other tissues. This particular neurotransmitter is referred to as GABA.
Mice with suppressed ALDH1a1 enzymes had unusually low levels of GABA in certain nerve cells, as did mice forced to binge drink. By increasing the presence of ALDH1a1 enzymes, it could be possible to likewise boost GABA synthesis in certain areas of the brain. In turn, this could correct an imbalance affecting the brain’s circuits, a problem frequently caused by excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The Stanford team contends that, with further research, it might be possible to develop a drug for this very purpose. The journal Science published the researchers’ work.