Previous research had shown that though alcohol had a wide range of pharmacological effects on the body, the brain was a primary target. However, the molecular mechanisms by which alcohol alters neuronal activity in the brain were not clearly understood.
Now, a new study has shed light into the interactions of alcohol with prototype brain proteins thought to underlie alcohol actions in the brain.
"Alcohol is the most common drug in the world, has been used by diverse human communities longer than recorded history, yet our understanding of its effects on the brain is limited when compared to other drugs," said Rebecca J. Howard, a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Texas at Austin Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research and corresponding author for this study.
Howard explained that neuroscientists have discovered how marijuana, cocaine, and heroin each bind to a special type of protein on the surface of brain cells, fitting like a key into a lock to change that protein's normal function. Yet alcohol has special properties that make it difficult to characterize its lock-and-key binding in detail, for example, alcohol is much smaller than other drugs, and appears to interact with several different types of proteins.
"The adverse effects of alcohol abuse are devastating on a personal level and on a societal level," added Gregg Homanics, a professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology and chemical biology at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Alcohol abuse costs our society more than the costs of all illegal drug abuse combined. For many years, most investigators thought that alcohol exerted nonspecific effects on the brain and simply perturbed neuronal function by dissolving in the membranes of nerve cells. However, our understanding of alcohol action has dramatically shifted in the last 10 to 15 years or so. There is now solid experimental evidence that alcohol binds in a very specific manner to key protein targets in the brain to cause the drug's well known behavioral effects. This review summarizes some of the most recent research," added Homanics.
The study will be detailed in the September 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.