Alcohol use is extremely prevalent part of most parts of American society. According to a 2012 survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 87.6 percent of people aged 18 or older have consumed alcohol in their lifetime.
This same survey revealed that the rate of people who had an addiction or alcohol use disorder was around 7.2 percent. While of course there may be many problem drinkers who either are unaware or do not admit their alcohol use is a problem, this survey does suggest that moderate, responsible alcohol use is a possibility for many people.
However, 88,000 people die each year as a result of alcohol-related cause, making it the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Therefore, it is not a problem we can ignore.
While the complex interplay of psychological, genetic, and social factors that cause some people to become problem drinkers cannot be fully understood or reduced to one simple explanation, some recent research suggests we may have discovered a new contributing factor.
The discovery of MicroRNA and BDNF
A team of researchers led by Dr. Dorit Ron at the University of California, San Francisco has discovered a key protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that can affect how someone decides to drink responsibly. According to tests done on mice, moderate drinking produces high levels of BDNF in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making.
However, as the level of BDNF is decreased, alcohol consumption becomes more extreme and more compulsive. The mice that had lower levels of BDNF drank alcohol at a far faster rate, even when it was given a bitter, unpleasant taste.
Thus, BDNF seems to be a very influential deciding factor in helping someone moderate their drinking, in a way that keeps it from being excessive or compulsive, and high levels of BDNF can prevent problem drinking.
Dr. Ron's research further found a decline in BDNF was tied to an increase in a certain type of microRNA, which are non-coding RNA molecules that play important roles in gene expression. The microRNA he called MiR-30a-5p increases as BDNF decreases.
Therefore, Dr. Ron's team suggested that decreasing or blocking MiR-30a-5p could cause help someone avoid becoming a problem drinker. When the heavy drinking mice were given a mi$-30a-5p inhibitor, their BDNF levels increased, and their drinking decreased.
How this research can be used in preventing alcohol abuse
One of the main reasons drug treatment plans focused on helping an addict move to sobriety can be so difficult is that they lead to a decrease in the brain's reward pathways, taking away a huge source of pleasure. While eventually a person in recovery can discover other, healthier ways to activate the pleasure centers of the brain at more normal levels, it is a difficult process for everyone, and drugs that reduce the addiction also suppress the ability of the brain to receive pleasure at all.
Ron's research has suggested it may be possible to create a medication as part of a treatment plan that would not target the reward center, but instead focus on inhibiting the reception of miR-30a-5p, targeting a cause of the alcohol abuse without affecting the reward center directly. That is not to say that this microRNA or BDNF protein is the final cause and solution of alcoholism.
The way addiction and heavy alcoholic affects brain patterns is multifaceted and complex, with many causes and effects. However, while further research is needed to figure out how to manipulate this particular microRNA without interfering with other genetic processes, this particular genetic material may provide part of the answer of how someone can be freed of their addiction.