Scientists in the North East have discovered a gene that regulates alcohol consumption and when faulty can cause excessive drinking.
A study by experts at Newcastle University found that while normal mice have little or no interest in alcohol, mice with a specific genetic mutation overwhelmingly chose water containing diluted ethanol to make it have roughly the same potency as wine.
They found these mice would even perform tasks to win an alcohol “reward”, and would drink so much they became inebriated.
It is hoped that the research, published yesterday in Nature Communications, may help experts develop an understanding of alcoholism in humans.
Liver specialist Dr Quentin Anstee, from Newcastle University, and joint lead author said: “It’s amazing to think that a small change in the code for just one gene can have such profound effects on complex behaviours like alcohol consumption.
“We are continuing our work to establish whether the gene has a similar influence in humans, though we know that in people alcoholism is much more complicated as environmental factors come into play.
“But there is the real potential for this to guide development of better treatments for alcoholism in the future.”
Researchers from five UK universities collaborated at the Medical Research Council’s Mammalian Genetics Unit to introduce subtle mutations into the genetic code at random throughout the genome and tested mice for alcohol preference.
This led them to identify the gene Gabrb1 which changes their preference so strongly that mice carrying either of two single base-pair point mutations in this gene preferred drinking alcohol over water.
Mice carrying the mutation were willing to work for alcohol, and drank so much they became drunk and even have difficulty in co-ordinating their movements.
Scientists believed they have found the mechanism involved, and will try to modify it in mice, then in humans.
Prof Hugh Perry, chair of the Medical Research Council’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, said: “Alcohol addiction places a huge burden on the individual, their family and wider society.
“If further research confirms that a similar mechanism is present in humans, it could help us to identify those most at risk of developing an addiction and ensure they receive the most effective treatment.”
Last night, anti-alcohol campaigners said they welcomed any research that gains a better understanding into the effects of alcohol.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, said: “This genetic mutation will only effect a small minority of people but we know that a third of the population drink above the recommended limits.
“In the vast majority of cases this is not due to genes, this is due to a dangerous product that is being heavily and inappropriately marketed by the alcohol industry.
“Alcohol is available at pocket money prices, 24 hours a day, and promoted to such a degree that it appears to be a normal part of every-day life. Tackling these issues should remain our key concern.”