New Gene Therapy Shows Promise in Reducing Alcohol Cravings, Study Finds

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Gene Therapy Shows Promise in Reducing Alcohol Cravings in Monkeys, Study Finds

Alcohol addiction may become a thing of the past thanks to a new gene therapy that has shown significant potential in reducing alcohol cravings in monkeys. The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, tested the therapy on macaque monkeys over a period of 12 months and reported promising results.

Lead by neuroscientist Kathleen Grant and her team at Oregon Health & Science University, the research aimed to find a long-term solution for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder. Grant explained that while short-term abstinence is achievable, many people relapse due to the strong desire to drink again, even when taking medication.

To establish addiction in the monkeys, they were gradually exposed to alcohol until a dependency was formed. The monkeys were then given the option to regulate their own intake, equivalent to approximately nine drinks per day for a human. The researchers divided the macaques into two groups: a control group and a group that received the gene therapy.

The gene therapy involved inserting two small holes in the macaques’ skulls and injecting a gene that produces the glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) protein. This protein stimulates the production of dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of happiness and is elevated when consuming alcohol. The monkeys were then given the choice between water and alcohol for four weeks.

The results of the study were astonishing. After just one round of gene therapy, the test group showed a 50% reduction in alcohol consumption compared to the control group. Subsequent test periods revealed that with each round of therapy, the test group voluntarily consumed less alcohol after the abstinence period. By the end of the 12-month study, their alcohol consumption had dropped by over 90%.

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Donita Robinson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, commented on the findings, stating that normalizing dopamine levels or increasing beneficial growth factors like GDNF could be an effective strategy in reducing the drive to drink. However, researchers also observed that the therapy influenced other behaviors, such as a decrease in water intake and weight loss. Further research is needed to examine the impact on mindset, mood, and activity levels.

While GDNF gene therapy is currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease, it could now be a significant breakthrough in addressing alcohol use disorder. Grant described how the monkeys’ drinking declined to the point where no blood-alcohol level was recorded, with the animals opting for water instead. Grant and her team believe the therapy could also be effective in treating other substance abuse disorders.

Despite its potential, the therapy may not be widely accessible and should be reserved as a last resort treatment option. Grant emphasized that it would be most appropriate for individuals who have not responded to conventional therapies and have a high risk of harm to themselves or others due to their alcohol use disorder.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol-related deaths pose a significant global problem, with an estimated 140,000 deaths annually. The promising results of this study offer hope for the future of treating alcohol addiction and reducing the associated risks to individuals’ health and well-being.

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