Alcoholism can now not only be studied and analyzed at the psychological level, but also at the molecular level, thanks to researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. They recently conducted a study that found how alcohol influences the dorsomedial striatum, the part of the brain that participates in decision-making and goal-driven behaviors.
The dorsomedial striatum is composed of medium spiny neurons, neurons that have many branches, or spines, protruding off their dendrites.
Spiny neurons have receptors for dopamine, which is further categorized into dopamine D1 and D2 neurotransmitters. D1 neurons have receptors for D1 neurotransmitters. They send excitatory postsynaptic potentials and encourage the action potential/signal to continue. D2 neurons counteract D1 neurons; they send inhibitory postsynaptic potentials and discourage further actions. In this study, D1 neurons prove to be a major part of alcoholism and addiction.
High consumption of alcohol, scientists learned, excites D1 neurons. The more excited they become, the more compelled one feels to perform an action…in this case, the action is drinking another alcoholic beverage.
More drinking induces more D1 neuron excitement, which leads to even more drinking.
Not only does it affect a D1 neuron’s excitability, alcohol also makes physical changes to the neuron itself at the molecular level, and consequently affects the neuron’s function.
In their study, researchers divided their test subjects into two groups: one that’s exposed to alcohol and one that’s not. Analyzing their spiny neurons, scientists saw that though the number of spines in the neurons of the individuals of each group didn’t change, the ratio of the difference between mature and immature spines was dramatic. The subjects that drank alcohol had notably longer branches and a high number of mature mushroom-shaped spines. The abstainers’ neurons had shorter branches and more immature mushroom-shaped spines. Mature, mushroom-shaped spines are involved in long-term memory; activation of long-term memory through alcohol underlies addiction.
However, there’s promising news! The study also showed results that blocking, or at least partially blocking, D1 receptors via a drug can inhibit and reduce the desire for consumption of another drink.
This is a huge step towards finding a cure for alcoholism. Alcoholism is a disease that affects not only the individual, but also his or her family, relatives, friends, etc…With this study, the scientific community has more of an understanding of how to go about creating new drugs and combating alcoholism.
If we suppress this activity, we’re able to suppress alcohol consumption. This is the major finding. Perhaps in the future, researchers can use these findings to develop a specific treatment targeting these neurons.
-Jun Wang, M.D., Ph.D., the lead author on the paper and an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.
What do you think? Do you think this study promotes a viable option towards curing alcoholism and addiction, or is there another method out there that we should be pursuing? Leave a comment below!