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Pharmaceutical researchers may be able to develop new medications that simultaneously reduce the risks for alcoholism and help halt alcohol-related organ damage, according to recent findings from a group of American scientists.
In the U.S., significant numbers of drinkers will ultimately qualify for a diagnosis of alcoholism (one of the two interrelated aspects of a condition called alcohol use disorder). The same patterns of drinking associated with diagnosable alcohol problems can lead to the onset of permanent damage in several organs or organ systems. In a study published in January 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine explored the possibility of developing medications that would limit the onset of alcohol cravings while also providing protection for the hearts and livers of alcohol consumers.
Alcoholism is a popular, unofficial term used to describe the presence of alcohol dependence, a condition marked by a brain-based need to keep consuming alcohol (typically in amounts far above the intake of the average moderate drinker). Apart from alcohol cravings, common core symptoms of alcohol dependence include rising tolerance to the intoxicating effects of drinking and the development of an unpleasant or medically dangerous withdrawal syndrome if the brain doesn’t receive at least the minimum amount of alcohol required to satisfy its established needs. Before 2013, the American Psychiatric Association maintained guidelines that asked doctors to treat alcoholism as a distinct and separate alcohol-related disorder. However, current guidelines from this organization now include alcoholism in the definition of alcohol use disorder, along with isolated or overlapping symptoms of an impairing level of non-addicted alcohol abuse.
Alcohol craving was added as a diagnosable symptom of alcohol abuse/alcoholism in 2013. People affected by this type of craving experience an intense desire to drink more alcohol, especially between drinking sessions. This desire serves to reinforce an excessive pattern of alcohol intake in current drinkers. It also significantly increases the odds that a person who manages to quit drinking and establish abstinence will eventually return to alcohol consumption.
In its essence, alcohol is poisonous to human beings. The toxic effects of the substance are typically kept in check in people who only drink in light or moderate amounts. However, people who drink heavily can gradually damage a number of critically important organs, including the liver, the brain, the kidneys, the stomach, the pancreas and the lungs. Liver damage often appears prominently in long-term heavy drinkers, since the human body relies on this organ for its basic ability to process and eliminate alcohol circulating in the bloodstream. Potentially fatal alcohol-related liver conditions include alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and alcoholic cirrhosis (permanent liver scarring). Long-term heavy drinkers can also develop alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a condition that can dangerously weaken or fatally compromise the heart’s ability to pump blood.
In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Iowa researchers used laboratory testing on mice to explore the possibility of developing medications capable of reducing exposure to alcohol craving while simultaneously lowering exposure to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic cirrhosis and other forms of alcohol-related heart and liver damage. Specifically, the researchers examined the impact of manipulating a protein inside the brain that’s linked to both alcohol craving and alcohol-related liver and heart problems.
The researchers bred a group of mice that lacked the protein in question, called RGS6. After analyzing the behavior of these mice, they concluded that the absence of RGS6 leads to a reduction in the pleasure associated with drinking, as well as a reduction in the severity of alcohol withdrawal. In combination, these effects contribute to a significant decline in alcohol craving levels. When the researchers exposed the mice lacking the target protein to heavy amounts of alcohol, they found that these animals developed substantially less heart and liver damage than other heavy-drinking mice that still had the protein in their brains.
The study’s authors believe their results indicate that it’s possible to develop medications that target the RGS6 protein in humans and simultaneously reduce the risks for alcoholism and alcohol-related liver and heart damage. They also believe that a combination of two medications may prove useful if no one can successfully develop a single medication that addresses both issues.