Today is my last day in the heart of the Midwest. Having spent the past two days attending a symposium, visiting WashU (and having been asked to pole vault for WashU), and giving a talk at a circadian clock journal club, today is the first full day I have to explore. Here’s a picture of The Arch and the adjacent Mississippi River (proof per the university and my viewers that I was actually here and not sipping a margarita on a cruise ship en route to the Bahamas in response to the weekly snow/ice blizzards of Northeast Ohio…..but I still have tomorrow……)
As for the symposium, it was fabulous. All the speakers are extremely well known in the field of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Drs. John C. Crabbe and Christopher Cunningham of Oregon Health and Science University described phenotypic differences in the mouse lines available to study alcohol abuse and alcoholism (measures such as consumption, preference, willingness to self-administer, aversion to self-administer, and a variety of other physiologically-mediated factors). They also illustrated that the elucidation of particular mouse lines to measure behavioral and physiological components of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, such as tolerance, reward, locomotor impairments, and conditioned place preference, are still complex and not well understood….but progressing nonetheless (conditioned place preference is returning to the site within the cage where alcohol was previously self-administered; interesting side note: tolerant heroin addicts have a greater likelihood of overdose if they shoot up in a novel place) . Here is an extensive article by Crabbe and respective collaborators highlighting some of the alcohol phenotypes characteristic in wild-type and genetically-engineered mouse strains.
Drs. Linda Spear and Danielle Dick orated about ontological differences in sensitivity to alcohol’s impairing/rewarding properties, emphasizing that the vast changes in brain plasticity, from increased synapse connections, to decreased grey matter, to increased white matter, to heritable changes in the electro-activity of the brain occurring during puberty (Danielle Dick’s research), can facilitate alcohol abuse and eventually, full-blown alcoholism.
Finally, Drs. Henry Kranzler and Markus Heilig from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (the funding source of our research) presented the most fascinating data: the efficacy of the various drugs presently used to mitigate alcohol craving, consumption and prevent relapse, is influenced by the genetic makeup of an individual and/or racial group! In other words, some individuals/racial groups are more responsive to these drugs because of some variant in a gene. Somehow, I imagine that pharmaceutical companies are not advertising this novel research because it would essentially put them out of commission.
Overall, this symposium truly illustrated that while we have made extensive progress in elucidating the neurobiological, genetic, developmental, and socioeconomic influences of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, we still have much to disentangle.
Crabbe, J., Phillips, T., Harris, R., Arends, M., & Koob, G. (2006). Alcohol-related genes: contributions from studies with genetically engineered mice Addiction Biology, 11 (3-4), 195-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2006.00038.x