Scientists Create a Mutant Worm to Help Learn About Treating Alcoholism

Alcohol Withdrawal

Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin have created a mutant worm that does not get intoxicated by alcohol, which could result to new drugs to treat the symptoms of people going through alcohol withdrawal.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience today, relates how the researchers were able to alter a common human alcohol target — a molecular channel that binds alcohol in the brain — in Caenorhabditis elegans worms by modifying the worm’s genetic makeup.

“This is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal,” corresponding author Jon Pierce-Shimomura, an assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a university news release.

An alcohol target is any neuronal molecule that binds alcohol.

One important aspect of this modified alcohol target, a neuronal channel called the BK channel, is that the mutation only affects its response to alcohol. The BK channel typically regulates many important functions including activity of neurons, blood vessels, the respiratory tract and bladder. The alcohol-insensitive mutation does not disrupt these functions at all.

Normally, when worms are put into a lab dish that contains alcohol, they become drunk. Being drunk for a worm means not being able to wiggle from side to side as much and also crawling much more slowly. But with the modified channel, the worms acted just as they did without the alcohol.

“It is remarkable that [a] mutation … could have such a dramatic specific effect on ethanol modulation while minimally affecting basal BK channel function,” the researchers wrote in the study.

“We got pretty lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without affecting its normal function,” says Pierce-Shimomura.

The scientists believe the research has potential applications for treating people addicted to 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,” says Pierce-Shimomura. “However, it remains to be seen which aspects of these disorders would benefit.”

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