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article imageClues into how alcohol disrupts the brain

By Tim Sandle     Apr 28, 2013 in Health
Researchers have identified how alcohol might affect key brain proteins. The finding could eventually lead to the development of drugs that could disrupt the interaction between alcohol and the brain.
Scientists have identified a key brain protein, which is a point of interaction where alcohol 'binds' to the brain, and have gone some way to understand its structure. The protein is called called a ligand-gated ion channel, and it is a key enabler of many of the primary physiological and behavioral effects of alcohol.
It is considered by many medics that alcohol addiction is associated with the way that alcohol interacts with the brain, amongst other lifestyle factors, as the U.S. NIAAA notes: "A person’s susceptibility to alcoholism–related brain damage may be associated with his or her age, gender, drinking history, and nutrition, as well as with the vulnerability of specific brain regions."
Research into the way alcohol interacts with the brain has previously been slow because, unlike many proteins in the body, the particular brain protein of interest cannot be viewed using the common X-ray crystallography methods.
However, when a science lab sequenced the genome of a cyanobacteria found in the Swiss Alps called Gloeobacter violaceus, they noted that a protein sequence on the bacteria was very similar to the sequence of a group of ligand-gated ion channels in the human brain. Unlike the protein in the human brain, scientists were able to crystallize the bacterial protein.
From this discovery, the scientists now plan to use mice to observe how changes to the key protein affect behavior when the mice consume alcohol.
The long term aim is to develop drugs that act on these proteins in ways that help people diminish or cease their drinking.
The research was undertaken at The University of Texas at Austin and the Pasteur Institute in France. The study has been published in Nature Communications. The paper is called "Structural basis for potentiation by alcohols and anaesthetics in a ligand-gated ion channel."
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