Brain Data Fuel Alcoholism Gene Clash

By Bower, B. | Science News, July 8, 1995 | Go to article overview

Brain Data Fuel Alcoholism Gene Clash


Bower, B., Science News


Alcoholics fall into two groups, depending on whether their brains exhibit a dramatically lower or slightly elevated flow of dopamine, a chemical that helps regulate pleasurable emotions during eating, drinking, and sex, a new study finds. Controversial studies suggesting that a substantial minority of alcoholics inherit a gene associated with depressed dopamine transmission appear to be on the right track, the new study's authors hold.

Nonviolent alcoholics have many fewer and less widely distributed dopamine reuptake sites--cellular gateways for recovering and recycling dopamine at key nerve junctions--than do nonalcoholics, asserts a team of Finnish scientists led by Jari Tiihonen, a psychiatrist at the University of Kuopio. These reuptake sites prove slightly more extensive in highly violent alcoholics than in nonalcoholics, the researchers report in the July Nature Medicine.

The findings fit with evidence associating one form of the D2 dopamine receptor gene, known as the A1 allele, with reduced numbers of dopamine receptors in the brain (SN: 11/14/92, p.332). People with fewer receptors have a greater likelihood of developing severe alcoholism or other types of drug abuse, some investigators theorize. The receptor disparity between violent and nonviolent alcoholics is not due to alcohol-induced changes in blood flow or shrinkage of brain tissue, withdrawal effects, or poor nutrition, the Finnish scientists argue.

Earlier studies lumped violent and nonviolent alcoholics together, which "might be one reason for the previous controversial findings concerning the association between alcoholism and [dopamine] abnormalities," Tiihonen's team writes.

But controversy permeates all aspects of these studies, and the genetic significance of the new data has already become a matter of dispute.

The Finnish researchers studied 19 habitually violent alcoholics (who had committed murders or other violent crimes), 10 nonviolent alcoholics, and 19 nonalcoholic adults. Each volunteer received an injection of a minute amount of a radioactive substance that attaches to dopamine reuptake sites. An imaging device then translated radioactive emissions into data on the number and extent of dopamine receptors in brain areas thought to regulate

pleasurable sensations. …

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