Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill

When alcoholics try to quit drinking, they can go through withdrawals. For most people, the effects of withdrawal are mild, but rare severe cases may actually result in death. Neuroscientists from the University of Texas have genetically modified worms to prevent them from feeling the main effects of intoxication from alcohol. In the future, this could be used to develop a medication to curb the effects of withdrawal. The research was led by Jonathan Pierce-Shimomura and the results of the study were published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The Big Potassium (BK) channel in cell membranes has a host of functions, particularly in the neurons, blood vessels, and bladder. Pierce-Shimomura’s team modified the channel so that it was still functional, but was not activated by alcohol. The BK channel was then inserted into Caenorhabditis elegans, which is a commonly used model organism. 

"This is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal,” Pierce-Shimomura stated in a press release. “We got pretty lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without affecting its normal function.”

Alcohol is a main factor in over 41% of admissions into substance abuse programs in the United States. Withdrawal can begin within hours of the last drink, and can last several days. On the mild end of symptoms, a person can experience shaking, insomnia, and some anxiety. Some have more severe reactions including seizures and delirium tremens, a condition that can include hallucinations, excessive sleeping, confusion, and agitation. For a small portion of people who experience delirium tremens, the condition can prove fatal.

The effects of alcohol are widespread throughout the body, making it difficult to target specific receptors in order to minimize withdrawal symptoms and alcohol cravings. When exposed to alcohol, C. elegans lose control of their motor function and find it hard to move. However, worms that had been given the modified BK channel did not feel most of the effects of the alcohol. 

“Our findings provide exciting evidence that future pharmaceuticals might aim at this portion of the alcohol target to prevent problems in alcohol abuse disorders,” explained Pierce-Shimomura. “However, it remains to be seen which aspects of these disorders would benefit.”

While the worms are a great first step in showing that the BK channel could be modified to function normally while resisting alcohol activation, the complex effects of alcohol on the entire body cannot be adequately explored without a better animal model. Future research will insert the modified channel into mice, which are much more similar to humans and can better indicate effects of alcohol addiction.

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