Excess alcohol can have lasting effects on brain: Research

First Posted: Dec 01, 2012 04:04 AM EST

Using fly larvae as models, a new study reveals how overuse of alcohol can cause lasting changes in the brain even after alcohol abuse stops.

In this study, the fly larvae were fed alcohol- spiked food for a period of days and they noticed how the larvae grew dependent on the spirit.

According to the researchers of The University of Texas at Austin, the human experience of alcoholism can be explored in part with studies conducted on fruit flies and other animals.

"Our evidence supports the long-ago proposed idea that functional ethanol tolerance is produced by adaptations that counter the effects of ethanol, and that these adaptations help the nervous system function more normally when ethanol is present," said Brooks Robinson of The University of Texas, Austin. "However, when ethanol is withheld, the adaptations persist to give the nervous system abnormal properties that manifest themselves as symptoms of withdrawal."

During the study Robinson and his colleagues noticed that alcohol consumption at a level equal to mild intoxication in humans at first obstructed learning by fly larvae.

These larvae had great levels of difficulty in associating an unpleasant heat pulse with an otherwise attractive odor in comparison to larvae that had not been drinking alcohol.

With 6 days of binge drinking, the larvae adapted and could learn as well as normal larvae could. Those animals that were dependent on alcohol learned poorly when their ethanol was taken away from them. And when alcohol was given back, their learning deficit was erased. 

According to Robinson, this study is the first proof of cognitive ethanol dependence in invertebrate, indicating that some of ethanol's ability to change behavior must begin at the cellular level.

The study also showed that the "responses to ethanol that addict and plague us" have a very long evolutionary history, Robinson said.

The findings are reported in the Current Biology.

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