Thumbnail photo of Gene Therapy Offers Possible Cure For Alcohol Addiction

Gene Therapy Leads To Decreased Alcohol Consumption In Primates

A study published in the Nature Medicine journal identified a form of gene therapy that could potentially be a one-time treatment for alcohol addiction.

The collaborative study, conducted by researchers from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the University of California San Francisco, Oregon Health & Science University, and the Oregon National Primate Research Center, found that alcohol consumption decreased after injecting a sample group of macaques, a species of monkey, with a gene intended to increase dopamine levels in the animals’ brains.

The macaques, who were predisposed to heavy drinking, decreased their alcohol consumption by 90%.

Focus On Dopamine Levels

The brain process most greatly affected by alcohol use disorders (AUD) and abuse is dopamine production and regulation.

Alcohol affects the brain by triggering the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that acts as a feel-good hormone and reward center of the brain.

People who consume a low to average amount of alcohol feel the enjoyable, mood-altering effects of dopamine, but high levels of alcohol use and abuse eventually lead to a decrease in dopamine levels. Therefore, people addicted to alcohol no longer experience happy feelings after consumption and solely continue to drink due to addiction.

Researchers hypothesized that if they were able to reset the reward system in the brain by enhancing the area that controls dopamine levels, they might also be able to reset the addiction.

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Gene Therapy Affects On Alcohol Consumption

Like humans, some primates are more prone to drinking than others. When given the choice of a beverage with an alcohol volume of 5% along with their regular meal and water, some macaques eventually started choosing the alcohol every time.

For this study, four of these heavy drinking macaques were chosen to receive the injection. Using magnetic resonance imaging to ensure proper placement of the injection, the primates were given a harmless virus that delivered the gene for the protein glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF).

Targeting the brain area responsible for dopamine production, the GDNF successfully triggered an increase in dopamine, resulting in a large decrease in alcohol consumption. Following the injection, the number of alcoholic drinks consumed by the macaques decreased from upwards of ten to one or two drinks a day.

Promising Treatment For The Future

Exciting possibilities exist for this treatment, as no current addiction interventions directly focus on rewiring the brain circuitry connected to addiction.

However, the researchers are quick to state that more studies are needed to ensure the reliability and safety of this treatment. However, they are hopeful, as similar gene therapy is currently being tested to maintain and treat other ailments, like Parkinson’s Disease.

They also agree that such an extreme procedure should only be considered when all other treatment options for alcohol abuse, such as inpatient and outpatient treatment, have been exhausted. Still, the study gives hope to people affected by alcohol addiction that a cure for addiction could be available in the near future.

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While new and promising treatments are on the horizon, it is essential to seek treatment now if you are struggling with alcohol addiction.

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