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Resetting the Alcoholic Brain (Audio)

Adron Harris, director of the Waggoner Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, and his team mapped the differences in gene expression between an alcoholic's brain and a non-alcoholic's brain. They found that, as a person becomes dependent on alcohol, thousands of genes in their brains are turned up or down, like a dimmer switch on a lightbulb, compared to the same genes in a healthy person's brain.

The scientists are now using an innovative technique to find drugs that can, in a sense, turn those switches back to their original settings and, they hope, revert an alcoholic's brain into a non-alcoholic brain. The work might help the millions of people who suffer with the emotional, financial and health consequences of alcoholism.

Read the press release: UT Austin Leads $29 Million Alcoholism Treatment Consortium


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Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. You can listen via iTunes, iTunes U, RSS, Stitcher or Google Play. Questions or comments about this episode or our series in general? Email Marc Airhart.

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Comments 10

 
Guest - Annabel Knight on Friday, 03 February 2017 10:12

Exciting work. A transcript would be nice.

Exciting work. A transcript would be nice.
Guest - Lisa & Warren on Friday, 03 February 2017 10:36

Fascinating! Excellent production.

Fascinating! Excellent production.
Guest - Leslie Collier on Friday, 03 February 2017 10:55

Great interview! My first reaction was, "hmmm, a pill to cure a drinking problem"? Glad I listened to this. There are other ways to address alcoholism and to treat it. First, as Nancy said "just say NO". She was ridiculed for saying this, but it is a reality. Second, earlier intervention and treatment, Third, don't glorify the drinking culture in high school and on college campuses. Hopefully, some of the funds raised through alcohol sales on campus can fund research or host AA and Alanon meetings.

Great interview! My first reaction was, "hmmm, a pill to cure a drinking problem"? Glad I listened to this. There are other ways to address alcoholism and to treat it. First, as Nancy said "just say NO". She was ridiculed for saying this, but it is a reality. Second, earlier intervention and treatment, Third, don't glorify the drinking culture in high school and on college campuses. Hopefully, some of the funds raised through alcohol sales on campus can fund research or host AA and Alanon meetings.
Guest - Sreven Levine on Friday, 03 February 2017 12:41

I wonder how much this research can relate ro other addictions, such as substance abuse, gambling overeating, etc.

Another question. Can it be assumed that "normalizing" gene expression is always beneficial to the addict? Is it possible that such modification while the person retains the addiction could be innefective or even aggrevate the condition? I suppose that's another reason drug trials are so important.

I wonder how much this research can relate ro other addictions, such as substance abuse, gambling overeating, etc. Another question. Can it be assumed that "normalizing" gene expression is always beneficial to the addict? Is it possible that such modification while the person retains the addiction could be innefective or even aggrevate the condition? I suppose that's another reason drug trials are so important.
Marc G Airhart on Monday, 06 February 2017 12:22

Laura Ferguson, graduate student in Adron Harris's lab responds: "You raise some really great points! In a disease state, the gene expression patterns are disrupted. This disruption drives the negative symptoms that characterize a disease (at least partially). The idea is that we can lessen disease symptoms by correcting the disrupted gene expression pattern. The principle of correcting gene expression could be applied to any disease state, not just alcoholism or addiction, but the gene expression pattern or "signature" of each disease will be different. Previous research has shown that alcoholism and other addictions share many of the same molecular disruptions, including gene expression, so the gene expression signature of opioid addiction might contain some of the same genes as the signature for alcoholism, but we expect there to be differences. 

It is not necessarily true that every disrupted gene we measure is driving the negative symptoms that characterize addiction. The regulation of gene expression patterns is very complex, and there are many other factors driving differential gene expression levels between people with and without an addiction (if interested, you could read about genetic hitchhiking or linkage disequilibrium for some examples). So, the signal we are looking for is noisy. Finding ways to refine and focus the disease signal to incorporate only the genes relevant to the disease is an active area of our research.

Before a candidate compound is tested in human clinical trials or laboratory studies, it is extensively scrutinized for safety and efficacy when tested in animal models. The great thing about repurposing existing FDA-approved drugs for new indications is that a lot of the safety work has already been conducted, and we are able to get the therapy to the people who need it faster."

Laura Ferguson, graduate student in Adron Harris's lab responds: "You raise some really great points! In a disease state, the gene expression patterns are disrupted. This disruption drives the negative symptoms that characterize a disease (at least partially). The idea is that we can lessen disease symptoms by correcting the disrupted gene expression pattern. The principle of correcting gene expression could be applied to any disease state, not just alcoholism or addiction, but the gene expression pattern or "signature" of each disease will be different. Previous research has shown that alcoholism and other addictions share many of the same molecular disruptions, including gene expression, so the gene expression signature of opioid addiction might contain some of the same genes as the signature for alcoholism, but we expect there to be differences.  It is not necessarily true that every disrupted gene we measure is driving the negative symptoms that characterize addiction. The regulation of gene expression patterns is very complex, and there are many other factors driving differential gene expression levels between people with and without an addiction (if interested, you could read about genetic hitchhiking or linkage disequilibrium for some examples). So, the signal we are looking for is noisy. Finding ways to refine and focus the disease signal to incorporate only the genes relevant to the disease is an active area of our research. Before a candidate compound is tested in human clinical trials or laboratory studies, it is extensively scrutinized for safety and efficacy when tested in animal models. The great thing about repurposing existing FDA-approved drugs for new indications is that a lot of the safety work has already been conducted, and we are able to get the therapy to the people who need it faster."
Guest - Walter on Friday, 03 February 2017 17:37

Can't find a button to download the written transcript. Just audio or just video is not acceptable.

Can't find a button to download the written transcript. Just audio or just video is not acceptable.
Guest - drkkwright on Saturday, 04 February 2017 10:49

Is this new approach (finding the right drugs to be re-purposed) being tested on both male and female mice? As we know Male and Female brains are 'wired' a bit differently.

Is this new approach (finding the right drugs to be re-purposed) being tested on both male and female mice? As we know Male and Female brains are 'wired' a bit differently.
Marc G Airhart on Monday, 06 February 2017 12:21

Laura Ferguson, graduate student in Adron Harris's lab responds: "Yes, the candidate compounds are tested in both males and females. The National Institute of Health (NIH) agrees with you - that sex differences are a real and important variable to consider when asking any biological question. the The NIH is the agency that awards researchers like us the public money to conduct our research. Their policy is that all researchers incorporate both sexes into their experimental design unless there is a REALLY good reason not to. Therefor, all NIH-funded research is required to include both sexes in their studies. For more information, see: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-15-102.html "

Laura Ferguson, graduate student in Adron Harris's lab responds: "Yes, the candidate compounds are tested in both males and females. The National Institute of Health (NIH) agrees with you - that sex differences are a real and important variable to consider when asking any biological question. the The NIH is the agency that awards researchers like us the public money to conduct our research. Their policy is that all researchers incorporate both sexes into their experimental design unless there is a REALLY good reason not to. Therefor, all NIH-funded research is required to include both sexes in their studies. For more information, see: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-15-102.html "
Guest - James Joseph McDonald on Saturday, 04 February 2017 19:34

What a terrific production! Thank you and hook 'em!

What a terrific production! Thank you and hook 'em!
Guest - Scott on Saturday, 11 February 2017 08:03

11 min of audio with no written transcript isn't very useful for those of us that can't listen to audio during breaks at work (me), or are hard of hearing (also me).

11 min of audio with no written transcript isn't very useful for those of us that can't listen to audio during breaks at work (me), or are hard of hearing (also me).
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