New research has discovered a certain mutated species of worm that could prove instrumental in the fight against alcoholism. Scientists at the University of Texas in Austin have discovered that by inserting a “modified human alcohol target” into the worm they are able to make it immune to the intoxicating effects of alcohol. The alcohol target is a neuronal molecule that binds alcohol and creates a worm that is immune to drunkenness. The ability of these mutated worms to avoid becoming intoxicated even after consuming alcohol could lead to researchers developing a new drug that would potentially be effective in treating alcoholics. If subjects no longer experienced the effects of alcohol it would discourage and prevent them from drinking in excess, providing a cure for some symptoms of their addiction.
Creating the Mutation
The mutation of the worm to create immunity to alcohol involved both inserting the alcohol target and modifying a potassium channel found in cell membranes to make it insensitive to alcohol while still being functional in the regulation of neurons and blood vessels. The success of this experiment is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal. An important milestone in the project was finding a way to make the potassium channel immune to alcohol while still being able to function normally and scientists were lucky that they were able to discover how to make that a reality. The results of the experiment provide exciting evidence that future pharmaceuticals could use the alcohol target to prevent problems with alcohol abuse. It is unclear now as to how people with alcohol disorders would specifically benefit but the possibilities are open for improving treatment for alcoholism through this important research. Newly developed drugs could potentially be used to combat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and help treat patients while in rehab.
The potassium channel that was modified in the experiment is known as the BK channel which regulates and can slow down neural activity. When alcohol is consumed, the BK channel releases more potassium than normal and dramatically reduces neural activity leading to the type of sluggish thinking and movement associated with being intoxicated. Researchers involved in the experiment were able to prevent the channel from reacting to alcohol or slowing down neural activity as it normally would. The effect of the mutation on the channel is to essentially prevent the sluggish behavior and allow neural activity to continue unhindered even after consuming alcohol. The worm used in the study is known as Caenorhabditis elegans and is considered a species that models intoxication well. Typically when they are given alcohol, these worms tend to crawl more slowly and show less movement from side to side. The worms are not as effective at studying other aspects of alcohol addiction such as cravings which are more easily studied through mice.
The results of this recent experiment prove that it could be possible to prevent a person from feeling drunk no matter how much alcohol they consume. Developing a drug that prevents a patient from feeling the effects of intoxication could be an important step forward in addiction treatment. Drugs used to treat heroin addiction often slow down or delay the effects of opiates so that users are less likely to have cravings for the drug. This research could lead to the creation of a similar medication for alcoholism that would counter the addictive effects of alcohol. Without the effects of intoxication, alcoholics will have much less of a desire to drink and will have an easier time remaining sober while in recovery.