Alcoholics may be missing a key enzyme that helps control impulses to drink. Researchers found that turning off production of the enzyme PRDM2 in the frontal lobes of rats led the animals to drink more alcohol, even when they didn’t like it.
Study leader Markus Heilig explained, “PRDM2 controls the expression of several genes that are necessary for effective signaling between nerve cells. When too little enzyme is produced, no effective signals are sent from the cells that are supposed to stop the impulse. We see how a single molecular manipulation gives rise to important characteristics of an addictive illness.”
“Now that we’re beginning to understand what’s happening, we hope we’ll also be able to intervene. Over the long term, we want to contribute to developing effective medicines, but over the short term the important thing, perhaps, is to do away with the stigmatization of alcoholism. The enzyme, PRDM2, has previously been studied in cancer research, but we didn’t know that it has a function in the brain,” Heilig added.
It has been long believed that alcoholics have impaired function in their frontal lobes, but the underlying cause has long been unknown.
The researchers of the study concluded, “If frontal function is impaired, it is difficult for us to control our impulses. A person with intact impulse control can walk past a bar on a warm day and think, ‘A beer would be nice, but I can’t have one now because I have to get back to work.’ An alcoholic does not have sufficient impulse control to refrain, thinking: ‘It’s hot and I’m thirsty’.”