The Brain Protein That Can Blunt Binge Drinking
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The Brain Protein That Can Blunt Binge Drinking


The American Medical Association has classified alcoholism as a disease since 1956, and most medical and scientific professionals concur that it has biological and genetic causes. Alkies, so the biology goes, chug 151 Bacardi rum like Fiji water because ingestion of one ethanol molecule makes them fiend for more and more with an inability to put on the brakes.

Finding a pharmacological cure for this disease has been a bumpy road for researchers, with drugs like Camprol and Naltrexone being only semi-successful. But science may be on the brink of something bigger and better.

Putting the Brakes on Booze

A recent study from the University of North Carolina, run by pharmacology professor Dr. Thomas L. Kash, concludes that a naturally-occurring compound in the brain could thwart both binge drinking and alcoholism—even in those predisposed to addiction.

The compound, known as Neuropeptide Y (NPY), is active in a part of the brain called the extended amygdala that manages risk and reward. “Extended amygdala” probably means jackshit to you, so we’ll break that down.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, what you might call the “party system” of the brain, as it’s pretty rowdy. It’s responsible for risk and reward, pleasure, anger and the good old “flight or fight” response. This part of the brain makes for fierce bar brawls, hot sex, saucy dancing and insidious addictions. Far older than the cerebral cortex—which facilitates learning, logic, planning and language—the limbic system will throw your reason to the wolves.

Three Drunk Mice

Dr. Kash engineered an equivalent protein to NPY and administered it to mice, waiting to see if they’d binge drink or not. Guess what happened? The mice laid off the booze once the protein had entered their systems.

“This anti-drinking effect was due to increasing inhibition (the brakes) on a specific population of cells that produce a ‘pro-drinking’ molecule called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF),” explains Kash. “When we then mimicked the actions of NPY using engineered proteins, we were also able to suppress binge alcohol drinking in mice.”

So for alcoholics, CRF is bad and NPY is good. The researchers believe NPY could be used as either an indicator of or potential treatment for alcohol abuse—meaning it could double as a diagnostic tool as well as a treatment option. Pretty bitchin’.

“What is particularly exciting is that these findings suggest that restoring NPY may not only be useful for treating alcohol use disorders, but may also protect some individuals from becoming alcohol dependent,” says Dr. Todd E. Thiele, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at UNC.

Coming to a Drug Store Not-So-Soon

The possibility of a binge-drinking block is certainly good news. But until scientists have held their clinical trials and gotten FDA approval, this may be just pie in the sky. It’s too bad scientists can’t just mix the compound up with a nutritional supplement, call it a day and sell it at Trader Joe’s for $1.99. That would truly be the ultimate protein shake.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.