Yale Professor of Psychiatry Jane Taylor and her graduate student Jacqueline Barker have identified some of the first innate biochemical differences underlying alcoholismrelated behavior in the brains of mice.
Because researchers have found it difficult to distinguish between the innate biological or neurological factors for alcohol abuse propensity and the changes in the brain caused by heavy alcohol consumption, the underlying neurological causes for alcoholismrelated behavior remain largely unknown. However, recent studies have linked addictive behavior and alcohol consumption to changes in neural plasticity, the adaptability of the brain to respond to neuronal activity.
Barker performed a series of tests to first identify and isolate mice that demonstrated vulnerability to addictive behaviors before exposure to alcohol. She and Professor Taylor hypothesized that differences in the prevalence of molecules relating to neural plasticity in a part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) would cause differences in vulnerability to alcohol-addiction-related behavior.
The study found that the modified neural protein PSA-NCAM, which is involved in learning and memory, is causally linked to the extinction of alcohol-seeking behavior. This protein was expressed at lower levels in the vmPFCs of mice at risk for alcoholism-related behavior than in mice that were not.
Further studies examining sex differences and targets regulating gene expression are currently underway. Taylor hopes that in the future, the findings can be applied to humans to help identify alcohol addiction and related disorders. “This work will allow us to find genes and molecules that might put people at risk,” Taylor says.
This research was supported by the NIAAA.