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Study finds possible solution to long term effects of binge-drinking


Scott Swartzwelder was awarded the Bowles Award in 2017 by the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at UNC, in part for some of the work done in the study. Photo courtesy of Scott Swartzwelder.

A study published earlier this month found a possible solution to the long-term effects of binge-drinking on adolescents.

The team of researchers comes from the research consortium, which is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, whose administrative core is based out of UNC.

The tests examined the effect Donepezil, a drug frequently used for Alzheimer’s disease treatment, had on rats exposed to alcohol in their “teenage” stage of life.

“Alcohol exposure during adolescence decreases the amount of acetylcholine available to the hippocampus," said Scott Swartzwelder, co-author of the study and psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Duke University. "When the hippocampus is deprived of this acetylcholine, you expect bad things to happen.”

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory. 

With the introduction of Donepezil, the negative effects of the alcohol — such as the decrease in acetylcholine levels — were seemingly reversed as the acetylcholine was replenished.

“It’s not like drinking some alcohol in high school or college is going to make you dumb,” Swartzwelder said. “But even a subtle difference, like a 5 percent difference, in your cognitive function is a huge compromise for your life.”

Swartzwelder said he is thrilled about what this study's findings could mean for students and adults alike.

“Think about what 5 or 7 percent of your ability to learn and remember would cost you in terms of your grades?" he said. "I mean that’s the difference between an A and a B, a 92 and an 88, and you think about the reverberating consequences across a person’s life span — it’s potentially huge."

The study found the introduction of Donepezil helped reverse some of the epigenetic — any process that alters gene activity without changing the DNA sequence – effects from alcohol. The fragile X mental retardation 1 (Fmr1) gene, which is tied to spinal development and fragile X syndrome in humans, was reversed by Donepezil.

“The fact that the epigenetic effect on Fmr1 expression by alcohol could be reversed gives us a very specific genetic target that we can look at and do further experiments to understand the genetic mechanisms that could be underlying the long-term changes in brain function after adolescent alcohol exposure” Swartzwelder said. “From a scientific and potential clinical standpoint that’s incredibly exciting.”

Swartzwelder said with these discoveries, research still needs to be done on if Donepezil is safe for use in young adults, as it has been almost exclusively used by aging people in desperate situations.

“Anytime you’re treating a patient, you always have to weigh the risks of doing harm with the possibility of doing good."


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