The fact that these 930 genes were so widespread throughout the genome suggests that tackling alcoholism may require a holistic approach, rather than focusing on a single physiological process. However, the researchers found that a large number of these genes were involved in the glutamate receptor signaling pathway, and therefore suggest that this may be a good place to start.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that is mainly picked up by receptors called NMDA receptors, which are found on the membranes of neurons. When stimulated, these receptors increase the excitability of neurons, while other receptors that receive a neurotransmitter called GABA offset this effect by inhibiting these neurons. As such, the neurons in the brain’s reward circuit are regulated by a delicate balance between excitation and inhibition, and upsetting this balance can often lead to the development of addictive behaviors.
Since several of the genes identified in this study are associated with NMDA receptors, it seems likely that developing treatments that target this pathway could help to attenuate alcoholism.
It is worth noting, however, that more work will be required in order to determine if the same genes found in rats are also associated with alcoholism in humans.