Brain surgery to treat Parkinson's could help chronic heavy drinkers

Scientists have found that a gene therapy used to treat Parkinson’s disease might also help people with alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University and institutions across the US have found the therapy could dramatically reduce alcohol use among chronic heavy drinkers.

The treatment requires brain surgery to implant the gene for a protein called glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF). This helps to increase the production of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes people feel good.

The study was carried out by injecting the molecule in a specific area of the brain of a group of rhesus macaque monkeys that voluntarily and heavily drank ethanol diluted in water.

After four macaques underwent the procedure, researchers found their consumption dropped by more than 90% compared with a control group.

The therapy increased dopamine production in the brains of monkeys with alcohol use disorder. This caused the monkeys to drink much less alcohol. In fact, some of the monkeys stopped drinking alcohol altogether.

‘This was incredibly effective,’ said Dr Kathleen Grant, the study’s co-senior author.

‘Drinking went down to almost zero. For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.’

In people with AUD, chronic drinking can decrease the production of dopamine. This makes them feel like they need to drink more alcohol to feel good.

‘Dopamine is involved in reinforcement of behavior, and in people finding certain things pleasurable,’ said Dr Grant.

‘Acute alcohol use can increase dopamine. However, by drinking it chronically, the brain adapts in such a way that it decreases the release of dopamine. So when people are addicted to alcohol, they don’t really feel more pleasure in drinking. It seems that they’re drinking more because they feel a need to maintain an intoxicated state.’

While this treatment is still in its early stages, it could be a new way to treat alcoholism in humans.

In 2021, there were 9,641 deaths from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK, the highest number on record.

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 28.6 million adults ages 18 and older had AUD in 2021.

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