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Thursday, November 26, 1998 Published at 09:50 GMT


Drunken mice and alcoholism

A surprise find amongst a group of drunken mice could lead to the development of drugs to treat people who eat or drink too much.

Research published in the journal Nature has pointed to a link between a specific brain chemical and alcoholic behaviour.

Scientists from the University of Washington, Seattle, report that alcohol consumption, and the resistance to its effects, appears to be related to a neurotransmitter known as neuropeptide Y (NYP).

Genetically engineered Mice without any NPY can take their drink well and consume more of it. Mice with too much get drunk quickly and avoid alcohol.

Complex behaviour

"This is the first direct demonstration that there are altered levels of alcohol consumption if you change the amount of NYP in the brains of rodents," said Todd Thiele who headed the research.

"Alcohol consumption and resistance are inversely proportional to concentrations of NYP in the brain. Together, these data indicate that in rodents there is a relationship between NYP levels and the willingness to voluntarily consume alcohol."

To measure the effects of NYP levels on alcohol consumption in mice, the rodents were individually housed and offered two drinking bottles - one containing water, the other filled with an ethanol solution. The strength of various ethanol solutions given to the mice ranged from the equivalent to a beer up to a powerful shot of whiskey.

Alcohol abuse

NPY is also found in humans and is known to influence much behaviour including eating habits and responses to stress. But the scientists warn that much more research is needed to determine if there is a relationship between NYP and alcohol consumption and abuse in humans.

Nevertheless, if they can pinpoint how NYP works, there is a possibility that a future generation of drugs could not only cure heavy drinkers but treat other destructive behaviours such as over eating.

The research was funded by the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "This study is important for two reasons," said Dr Enoch Gordis, director of the NIAAA.

"It indicates that peptides related to appetite and anxiety are significant areas for study in alcohol research and that drugs designed to interact with components of the neuropeptide Y signalling system may someday be useful in helping individuals control their alcohol consumption."

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