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Thursday December 1st

UNC Study Illuminates Effects of Alcohol

The study shows that alcohol can block the induction of Fos protein, which is important in memory formation and higher brain function, said Darin Knapp, professor of psychology at the School of Medicine and the lead author of the study.

"What we think is important is this interaction between these two chemicals occurred in some places and not others," Knapp said.

Specific areas of the brain affected include the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which are important to memory and higher brain function, Knapp said.

The common idea about alcohol used to be that it affected the entire brain, leaving little hope for treatment of addicts. But this study shows something completely different, Knapp said.

"We've demonstrated that alcohol has effects in specific receptors in specific parts of the brain," he said. "If we can find specific effects ... then that's the key to finding new treatments."

In the study, rats were given alcohol and then given N-methyl-D-aspartic acid, known as NMDA, a receptor of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which stimulates brain activity and Fos protein induction, Knapp said. Two hours later the rats' brains were studied under a microscope.

The research involved 38 different brain regions, showing several different patterns of effects. The main effect of the alcohol was to inhibit NMDA-induced Fos protein induction.

"What amazed me the most is the potency of alcohol, or the power to completely block the Fos proteins," Knapp said.

"It's night and day," he said of the difference between the level of protein when alcohol is and is not present.

"The amount of alcohol that I give to my rats is not different than what college students get," he said. "Since I know alcohol is having such strong effects ... then the implication is that what the students are doing to themselves is what I'm doing to my rats, and I'm worried about that."

Similar research has been conducted in Oregon, where researchers have studied the effects of alcohol on the brain using the same method.

"Previous methods allowed us to look at certain brain regions, but not many regions at the same time -- here you've got a complete look at the brain at one time," said Andrey Ryabinin, assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Ryabinin said the study gave them a better understanding of the importance of the protein to higher brain function.

"The protein has been shown to be important in many functions of the brain, particularly on memory formation," Ryabinin said, citing a study published about a year ago where mice with higher levels of NMDA were able to learn faster than other mice.

"Alcohol has some specific effects on a protein that is very important for brain function."

Knapp's study appears in the November issue of the journal Alcohol: Clinical and Environmental Research. Knapp says he hopes the study's findings will be part of the process in reaching better treatment for alcoholics.

"Like all research, it's like a train," he said. "We're one of the box cars on the train."

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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