Could binge drinking and alcohol abuse be a matter of genetics? A group of UK researchers seem to think so. They discovered that there is a gene that regulates alcohol consumption and when “faulty” this gene can cause excessive drinking – in mice at least.
According to researchers the study found that normal mice drink little or no alcohol when offered a free choice between a bottle of water and a bottle of diluted alcohol. However those mice with a mutated Gabrb1 gene overwhelmingly preferred alcohol to drinking water. These mice chose to consume almost 85 per cent of their daily fluid as the alcohol option rather than the water option provided to them.
The extensive research was a joint effort by scientists from 5 UK universities including Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University of Sussex, UCL and University of Dundee – and the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit at Harwell.
Ultimately these findings are significant because they may revolutionize the way alcohol abuse and alcoholism is treated.
The following excerpt explains more about the findings:
Dr Quentin Anstee, Consultant Hepatologist at Newcastle University and joint lead author, said: “It’s amazing to think that a small change in the code for just one gene can have such profound effects on complex behaviours like alcohol consumption.
“We are continuing our work to establish whether the gene has a similar influence in humans, though we know that in people, alcoholism is much more complicated as environmental factors come into play. But there is the real potential for this to guide development of better treatments for alcoholism in the future.”
A research team under the leadership of Professor Howard Thomas from Imperial College London introduced subtle mutations into the genetic code at random throughout the genome and then tested mice for their drinking preference. This is how researchers managed to narrow down the gene Gabrb1 which changed the alcohol preference so strongly that the mice carrying one of two possible mutations in this gene preferred drinking a 10 per cent alcohol solution the strength of wine over water.
The researchers also managed to show that mutated mice were willing to work to obtain alcohol, for example by pushing a lever to get to the alcohol and while the normal mice didn’t, these mutated mice continued to work for long periods of time to obtain the alcohol.
Interestingly the mice with the mutated gene would voluntarily drink enough alcohol in an hour to become visibly intoxicated.
The article goes on to explain:
Gabrb1 codes for a component of the GABAA receptor, which responds to GABA, a chemical that carries messages between brain cells.
The researchers found that the gene mutation caused the receptor to activate spontaneously, even in the absence of GABA.
These changes were particularly strong in a region of the brain that controls pleasurable emotions and reward, the nucleus accumbens.