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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 10:33 GMT
Gene 'key' to alcohol's effects
The effects of alcohol on the brain are complex
Scientists believe they have uncovered a key gene which may account for many of the effects of alcohol on the brain.

The discovery was made in the roundworm, which shares many of the same genes with humans.

Researchers from the University of California at San Francisco turned off the gene in some worms - who then proved resistant to alcohol's effects.

Other experts warn that it may not be possible to make a drug for alcoholics which stops them getting drunk.

Studies have suggested that alcohol acts on many different mechanisms in the brain, inhibiting the action of some cells to produce the well-known lack of reserve and sleepy feelings.

Worms and fruit flies become intoxicated at roughly the same concentration of alcohol, leading many scientists to believe that the drug works in much the same way throughout the animal kingdom.

Alcoholism drug

The hope is that it may be possible to produce a drug which turns off some of the pleasureable effects of drinking alcohol, and perhaps helps tackle alcoholism.

This is a highly attractive target. We now know it is central to the intoxicating effects of alcohol.
Dr Steven McIntyre, UCSF
The UCSF research focuses on a type of roundworm, which has approximately 10,000 genes which can be found in man.

They examined a gene called slo-1 which has an effect on a mechanism which opens a channel in a brain cell and allows potassium ions to flow out.

The researchers found that alcohol made the channel open more frequently, depressing the activity of the brain cells and leading to the sluggish, uncoordinated activity associated with someone who had been drinking.

The researchers suggested that a drug which halted alcohol's effect on this gene might actually "sober someone up" after a drinking session.

Behaviour change

Dr Steven McIntyre, who led the study, published in the journal Cell, said: "Until we conduct human studies, we can't say for sure whether this channel or the pathways involving this channel are defective in alcoholics, but this is a highly attractive target.

"We now know it is central to the intoxicating effects of alcohol."

Worms with a mutated slo-1 gene were much harder to get drunk, the researchers found.

"This is the first study to demonstrate that a single gene mutation can create such strong resistance to the behavioural effect of ethanol."

But Professor Dai Stephens, from the University of Sussex, told BBC News Online that the mechanisms of intoxication were complex - and so connected to vital functions of the brain that a drug designed to tamper with them could prove fatal.

He said: "It seems quite plausible that the mechanism they describe is connected to alcohol intoxication, but there are a dozen other targets involved.

"They involve some of the most basic functions of the brain."

Flies 'hold clue to alcoholism'
08 Dec 02  |  Health

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