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Study Offers Insight into the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Posted in Alcoholism

A new study addresses recent findings regarding the underlying mechanisms behind the effects of alcohol on the brain. The molecular mechanisms by which alcohol changes neuron activity in the brain are poorly understood, and this new research helps shed light on the subject.

Rebecca J. Howard, corresponding author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol & Addiction Research, said that although alcohol is the most common drug in the world, our understanding of its effects on the brain is limited, compared to other drugs.

Neuroscientists now know how marijuana, cocaine, and heroin bind to a special protein on the surface of brain cells; however, alcohol’s special properties make it difficult to characterize its binding process in detail. For instance, alcohol seems to interact with several different types of proteins.

Gregg Homanics, a professor of anesthesiology, pharmacology, chemical biology at the University of Pittsburgh, said that our understanding of alcohol action has dramatically changed in the last 10 to 15 years, and there is now experimental evidence that alcohol binds to specific proteins in the brain, causing the drug’s behavioral effects.

The study found that combining X-ray crystallography, structural modeling, and site-directed mutagenesis may be better for studying alcohol’s interactions than traditional techniques such as radioligand binding or spectroscopy. In other words, alcohol does not fit easily into any particular protein, as other drugs do, which could be why it takes such a large quantity of alcohol to affect the brain, compared to other drugs. The researchers found that the above-listed methods may be better suited for studying alcohol’s interactions with the brain than traditional methods.

The researchers also found that alcohol can enter hydrophobic pockets in the structure of various brain proteins, and that it interacts with specific amino acids inside these pockets in a very specific manner.

Homanics said that he feels there is overwhelming evidence that specific alcohol binding sites exist on a range of brain protein targets, which is significant because these sites can be define in greater detail, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the molecular function of alcohol and the development of drugs that can selectively target these binding sites. These drugs could be very helpful in addiction treatment.

Source: Science Daily, Understanding Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain, June 15, 2011