From the Journals

Gene therapy offers new way to fight alcohol use disorder



A type of gene therapy that reboots the brain’s reward system could curb drinking in those with severe alcohol use disorder.

Researchers from Oregon Health & Science University, Portland implanted the therapy directly into the brains of rhesus monkeys that had been conditioned to drink 8-10 alcoholic drinks a day. A harmless virus that carried a specific gene was placed in the region of the brain that regulates dopamine, which provides feelings of reward and pleasure.

“We wanted to see if we could normalize the dopamine in these motivational areas – if, indeed, motivation to overdrink or drink heavily would be mitigated,” said study author Kathleen Grant, PhD, a professor and chief of the division of neuroscience at the university’s Oregon National Primate Research Center.

The need for new alcohol use disorder treatments may be more dire than ever. Alcohol-related deaths in the United States increased dramatically between 2007 and 2020, especially in women, according to research published in the journal JAMA Network Open. The next year, they spiked again, to 108,791 alcohol-related deaths in 2021 alone, according to the National Institutes of Health. That’s slightly more than the number of drug overdoses recorded in 2021.

For the 29.5 million Americans with alcohol use disorder, also known as alcohol abuse or dependence, the road to recovery can be challenging. One reason is that the reward systems in their brains are working against them.

At the first taste of alcohol, the body releases dopamine. But if a person drinks too much for too long, the brain reduces dopamine production and even more alcohol is needed to feel good again.

The gene researchers placed in the monkeys’ brains is called glial-derived neurotrophic factor. It is a growth factor, stimulating cells to multiply. It may help improve function of brain cells that synthesize dopamine, effectively resetting the whole system and reducing the urge to drink.

The study was surprisingly successful. Compared with primates that received a placebo, those that received the growth factor gene decreased their drinking by about 90%. They basically quit drinking, while the primates that got the placebo resumed their habit.

A similar procedure is already used in patients with Parkinson’s disease. But more animal studies, and human clinical trials, would be needed before this therapy could be used in humans with alcohol use disorder. This invasive treatment involves brain surgery, which has risks, so it would likely be reserved for those with the most severe, dangerous drinking habits.

“I think it’d be appropriate for individuals where other treatment modalities just weren’t effective, and they’re worried for their lives,” Dr. Grant said.

Alcohol use disorder treatments

Today, treatment for alcohol use disorder ranges from a brief conversation with a health care provider, in mild cases, to psychiatric treatment or medication in moderate or severe cases.

There are four Food and Drug Administration–approved treatments for alcohol use disorder and a few more medications that health care providers can prescribe off label.

“They’re not widely used,” said Henry Kranzler, MD, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. “They’re shockingly underutilized.”

One reason: Just 4.6% of people with alcohol use disorder seek treatment each year, according to NIH data.

“Some of the issues include the ubiquity of alcohol, and its acceptance in American culture – and the fact that that makes it difficult for people to acknowledge that they have a problem with alcohol,” said Dr. Kranzler.

But another problem is that many health care professionals don’t recognize and treat alcohol use disorder in patients who do seek care. Those seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder can find a qualified provider at the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry or American Society of Addiction Medicine directories.


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