Neuronal switch that turns off compulsive drinking urge

Researchers have found that inactivating a network of alcohol-linked neurons can switch off the urge for compulsive drinking.

New York: Researchers have found that inactivating a network of alcohol-linked neurons can switch off the urge for compulsive drinking.

There may be a way to switch off the urge for compulsive drinking, according to a new study in animal models led by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI).

"We can completely reverse alcohol dependence by targeting a network of neurons," said lead researcher Olivier George, Assistant Professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in San Diego, California.

The findings, published in the The Journal of Neuroscience, built on previous studies showing that frequent alcohol use can activate specific groups of neurons. 

The more a person drinks, the more they reinforce activation in the neuronal "circuit," which then drives further alcohol use and addiction. 

For the new study, the researchers investigated whether there was a way to influence only the select neurons that form these circuits. 

In both humans and rats, these neurons make up only about five percent of the neurons in the brain's central amygdala.

For the current experiment, researchers designed rat models of alcohol dependence that expressed a special protein to distinguish only the neurons activated by alcohol. 

The rats gave the researchers a potential new window into how these circuits form in human brains, where alcohol-linked neurons are harder to identify without the use of protein labels.

The rats were then injected with a compound that could specifically inactivate only alcohol-linked neurons.

George said he was surprised to see these rats completely cease their compulsive alcohol drinking, a change that lasted for as long as the rats were monitored. 

"We've never seen an effect that strong that has lasted for several weeks," George said. 

The researchers went on run the experiment a second and then a third time. Each time, the rats ceased drinking compulsively.

"It's like they forgot they were dependent," George noted.

Interestingly, these rats were still motivated to drink sugar water, indicating that the researchers had successfully targeted only alcohol-activated neurons, not the brain's overall reward system. 

The rats also appeared to be protected from the negative physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as shaking.

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