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Alcoholism Cure? Scientists Locate Neuron Responsible for Addiction

First Posted: Sep 03, 2015 10:20 AM EDT
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A study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that the consumption of alcohol changes structures and functions of the dorsomedial striatum's neurons, which are responsible for goal-driven behaviors. This could potentially aid the creation of a drug that could combat alcoholism.

The study, led by Jun Wang, M.D., Ph.D, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, determined that alcohol alters the physical structure of medium "spiny" neurons, which are the main cell type in the striatum. 

These neurons each have one of two types of dopamine receptors, known as D1 or D2 neurons. D1 neurons are colloquially referred to as part of a "go" pathway in the brain, while D2 neurons are in the "no-go" pathway. Basically, D2 neurons tell you not stop, and not take action, while D1 neurons encourage you to gogogo, according to Science Daily.

D1 neurons have longer-branching and more mature, mushroom-shaped spines (the kind of spines that store long-term memories) than D2 neurons. However, the placebo group, the models not exposed to alcohol, tended to have more of the immature versions of the mushroom-shaped spines in D1 neurons of their brains. The total number of spines was the same for both groups, but the ratio of mature-to-immature was dramatically different between the alcohol group and the placebo group, according to the Economic Times

The team knew that dopamine was a crucial part of addiction, but they realized that the D1 receptor also has an important role. They found that by consuming large amounts of alcohol, the D1 receptors become more "excitable," meaning that they activate with less stimulation.

"If these neurons are excited, you will want to drink alcohol," Wang said. "You'll have a craving." 

Animal models were used for the experiment, and the increased mature spines in their D1 neurons showed an increased preference to drink large quantities of alcohol when the models were given the choice. When those models were given a drug that at least partially blocked the D1 receptor, they showed vastly reduced desire to drink alcohol, according to Medical Xpress.

"If we suppress this activity, we're able to suppress alcohol consumption," Wang said. "This is the major finding. Perhaps in the future, researchers can use these findings to develop a specific treatment targeting these neurons."

"My ultimate goal is to understand how the addicted brain works, and once we do, one day, we'll be able to suppress the craving for another round of drinks and ultimately, stop the cycle of alcoholism," Wang added. 

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