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New Finding Suggests Wasted Mice Could Lead to Treatment for Binge Drinking

HOST I: No surprise, binge-drinking alcohol is bad. Nearly 90,000 people die each year from excessive drinking.

HOST II: Arianna Skibell reports on a recent discovery in the brains of mice that could provide a new treatment to curb the urge to binge. We begin at the scene of the crime — a bar.

It’s a Saturday night at Jake’s Dilemma, a bar on 81st and Amsterdam known for its four dollar shots and sticky floors. It’s the kind of bar you go to for one reason: to get trashed. James Myer is splitting a pitcher of beer with a friend. He loves drinking.

Myer: I enjoy it quite a bit, it might be one of my favorite things to do.

And he drinks…often.

Myer: Not more than once a night, once a night.

But sometimes he will have as many as 8 drinks.

Myer: I just turned 30 so 8 is pretty much the top for me. Maybe, maybe 10.

The CDC defines binge drinking as five or more drinks for a man and four or more drinks for a woman in a two-hour period. Though he drinks every night, Myer says he’s not a guy with a real drinking problem.

Myer: I’m more the guy that gets right to the point of drunk and stops drinking every night, so I’m never going to hit rock bottom.

At 30 now, Myer’s not yet at the age when people binge drink the most – that’s actually men ages 35 to 65, not the college students that so often make headlines. Still, what Myer doesn’t know is that when he drinks like a fish, he’s actually drinking a lot more like a mouse.

Kash: They will binge drink alcohol to very high levels.

Thomas Kash is a neuroscientist who studies the effects of binge drinking on mice – who are apparently little drunkards.

Kash: Their blood alcohol levels will get up to 1.4 BAC, blood alcohol concentration. Where as, you know, if a person had a blood alcohol of 1.4 they would be very very very intoxicated.

Mice just don’t know when to stop, making them great subjects for Kash and his team at University of North Carolina to study the binge drinking brain. They’ve found that the desire to binge drink lies in the amygdala, the walnut shaped part in the middle of the brain that controls emotions. Moderate drinking lights up the part of the amygdala that responds to pleasure. But Kash and his collaborators found that binge drinking seems to be compelled by something less pleasurable.

Kash: Essentially what we think is happening is that with binge drinking we’re engaging some of this stress related circuitry and that’s helping to drive this behavior.

Now, Kash and his team think they may have found an off switch. It’s a two step process. First they inject a virus deep into the brain of the drunk mice. This primes a receptor. Next, Kash injects the mouse with a naturally occurring protein called Neuropeptide Y, which activates the receptor.

Kash: That activation of that receptor serves to turn off these cells or kind of turn them down you might say. Essentially what we showed is if we shut down a different population of cells in this brain region, we could shut down or turn binge drinking into a more innocuous type of behavior.

These hardcore binge-drinking mice are turned into more casual, one-glass of wine with dinner, types. If Kash and his team can replicate these findings in humans, that would be huge.

Kash: We have a very specific place in the brain that we know is altered in alcoholics and we have a very specific protein and we known very specifically how it works. In that sense it is a very critical door being opened to studying alcohol abuse.

Binge drinking is a huge problem in this country. More than half of the alcohol consumed by adults in the U.S. is in the form of binge drinks. Drinking that much, even occasionally, can cause stroke, heart disease, cancer and a host of other health issues. And stopping binge drinking can take more than just willpower.

Feinstein: Increasingly, we’re looking to pharmaceutical interventions that work.

Emily Feinstein is the director the addiction and substance abuse center at Columbia. Alcohol and substance abuse disorders are the most preventable causes of death in the U.S., she says.

Feinstein: They cost more and take more lives than cancer, diabetes and other health conditions. And we need more treatments that are effective and easily accessible.

But even if it does, Feinstein says not every drug works for every person. And —

Feinstein: There’s a compliance factor. For some of these drugs you have to take the drug yourself, everyday.

Not everyone is willing to do that. At Jake’s Dilemma James Myer and his friend have finished their pitcher. Time for another round. Myer says even if there was a pill to curb his desire to binge drink, he wouldn’t take it.

Myer: Will it get me drunk?

Skibell: No.

Myer: Well absolutely not then. No, that seems silly and useless. That sounds like a medication for wanting to have sex that’s the opposite of Viagra. I don’t want that. I just, I want to have sex.

But even if Myer changes his mind, it’s going to take a long time before Kash’s research moves from a mouse’s brain to a human brain.

Arianna Skibell, Columbia Radio News

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