In a new study, researchers found how sections of DNA might contribute to the risk of alcohol abuse in men.
They found a section of DNA that switches on key genes in parts of the brain that control alcohol intake and mood.
Identified for the first time, these sections of DNA may act as future drug targets for the development of new medicines to treat alcohol abuse and anxiety in men.
The research was conducted by a team from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh.
Alcohol abuse kills millions of people around the world each year and can account for up to 8% of all male deaths.
On top of this, there is evidence that the lockdown has contributed to increased anxiety and alcohol intake.
Given the link between anxiety and alcohol abuse, this increase is not really surprising.
However, the questions remain; does anxiety lead to increased alcohol intake or does alcohol induce anxiety? Or, could there be a common mechanism driving both anxiety and alcohol intake?
The team attempted to answer these questions by exploring human DNA to find genetic mechanisms that could contribute to the relationship between anxiety and alcohol.
Previous research has shown that the human genome contains gene sequences that encode the proteins that make up our cells.
However, what scientists don’t know is how these genes are turned on in the correct cells at the correct times to produce a healthy human body.
Recent research shows that the majority of changes in DNA linked to disease might occur within enigmatic “enhancers” or “switch” areas that control where and when these genes should be switched on and off and this is where we have focused our efforts to answer these questions.
Once the team had identified this ‘switch’ section of DNA, they found that changes within the switch were linked to alcohol abuse in men who also suffered anxiety.
This exciting and unexpected link prompted them to use CRISPR genome editing in mice to delete this switch from the mouse DNA.
They then allowed the mice access to a choice of water or an alcohol mix. Ordinary mice drunk mostly from the bottle with alcohol. Surprisingly, the mice without the switch largely avoided the alcohol.
The male mice without the switch showed fewer signs of anxiety compared to the normal male mice who tended to hide. So the results of our mouse tests mirrored the results found in humans.
This is the first time that a switch has been identified that has been linked to behaviors with such a major impact on human health.
They believe that their unique approach provides a template for understanding the role of genetic switches in the development of other complex psychiatric diseases whose causes have so far evaded scrutiny.
The lead author of the study is Dr. Alasdair MacKenzie at the University of Aberdeen.
The study is published in Molecular Psychiatry.
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