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Researchers Find Link Between Alcoholism and Vulnerability

Update Date: Mar 26, 2013 12:27 PM EDT

New research sheds light into why certain people might develop an addiction to alcohol. Although people often believe that alcoholism runs in the family, there might be more underlying factors that contribute to one's vulnerability to the drug. According to new research, Jeff Weiner, Ph.D., a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist and his research team found that certain character traits and individual responses to alcohol can be observed as markers for alcoholism. However, the researchers could not conclude why these character traits develop in certain people and lead to an increase in vulnerability for the disease.

The research team observed the behavioral patterns of individual mice that were bred to have similar genetic variations to humans when they were given a daily dosage of alcohol. The researchers understood that a mouse that is given alcohol daily would tend to more stimulated and active. Instead of comparing mice to a control group of mice without any alcohol, the researchers decided to evaluate each mouse's reaction to the alcohol. The researchers, however, did use a control group as a base in the study. They found that alcoholism occurred in mice that developed an increase in locomotor sensitization, which is an increase in activity due to constant alcohol exposure. Not every single mouse in the experimental group developed an addiction.

"We found large variations in the development of locomotor sensitization in alcohol in these mice, with some showing robust sensitization and others showing no more of a change in locomotor activity than control mice given daily saline injections. Surprisingly, when all of the alcohol-exposed mice were given an opportunity to voluntarily drink alcohol, those that had developed sensitization drank more than those that did not. In fact, the alcohol-treat mice that failed to develop sensitization drank no more alcohol than the saline-treated control group," the researchers noted.

The researchers looked into the brains of the mice that developed robust sensitization and found that these mice's brains did not form brain neuroplasticity normally, which changed how their brains might have reacted to certain drugs like alcohol and cocaine. Due to the deficits in the brain, the mice appeared to be more vulnerable to alcohol. The researchers, however, could not figure out the underlying biological mechanisms that cause this increase in vulnerability.

"We know that some people are much more vulnerable to alcoholism than others, just like some people have a vulnerability to cancer or heart disease. We don't have a good understanding of what causes this vulnerability, and that's a big question. But if we can figure it out, we may be able to better identify people at risk, as well as gain important clues to help develop better drugs to treat the disease," Weiner stated.

It appears that certain individuals react differently when given alcohol. However, the difference in reactions could not be explained. Therefore, more research needs to be done regarding how certain areas of the brain might make humans more vulnerable to alcohol and how these areas of the brain develop.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience

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