A new study held at Brown University by a group of researchers has shown that drinking alcoholic drinks, like whisky, spirits, and other drinks can affect how memories are formed. Even a few drinks can kickstart the memory-changing process, which can further cause cravings and eventual addiction.
For this particular study, fruit flies were examined as their molecular signals concerning reward or avoidance memory formation are very similar to those of humans. They are also attracted to alcohol and the sugars inside, as many beer drinkers will know. The results of the study found that alcohol consumption changes certain proteins responsible for memory formation, a change which can create cravings.
Karla Kaun is the assistant professor of neuroscience at Brown University and a senior author on this paper, which was published in the journal Neuron. At first, Kaun sought to understand why drugs and alcohol produce such happy, rewarding memories. Working with fellow researchers, undergraduates, the team came to some important conclusions.
‘All drugs of abuse—alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine—have adverse side effects. They make people nauseous or they give people hangovers, so why do we find them so rewarding? Why do we remember the good things about them and not the bad? My team is trying to understand on a molecular level what drugs of abuse are doing to memories and why they’re causing cravings.’
If research showed which molecules and proteins were being affected by alcohol, Kaun hoped it would put doctors in a better position to help addicts by altering the intensity of the cravings. In the case of fruit flies, genetic manipulation allowed the researchers to turn specific genes on and off, thus understanding which pathways were involved in the formation of rewarding memories born through alcohol consumption. It was discovered that instead of turning off dopamine-2 (which tells us if a memory is pleasing or not), alcohol consumption altered it completely by changing a single part of the protein.
‘We don’t know what the biological consequences of that small change are, but one of the important findings from this study is that scientists need to look not only at which genes are being turned on and off, but which forms of each gene are getting turned on and off,’ Kaun said. ‘We think these results are highly likely to translate to other forms of addiction, but nobody has investigated that.
‘If this works the same way in humans, one glass of wine is enough to activate the pathway, but it returns to normal within an hour. After three glasses, with an hour break in between, the pathway doesn’t return to normal after 24 hours. We think this persistence is likely what is changing the gene expression in memory circuits.’
While this shouldn’t put anyone off alcohol consumption completely, especially leading up to to the holidays, it’s an important breakthrough and hopefully one that will help alcoholics and addicts in the near future. The team is continuing their research, and Kaun is also working with John McGeary, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour, to examine DNA samples from alcohol abuse patients and determine whether genetic changes in any of the craving-related genes discovered in the fruit flies are present.
‘Just something to keep in mind the next time you split a bottle of wine with a friend or spouses,’ Kaun adds.
This article originally appeared on Forbes