Studying Alcohol Dependence
This is a discussion with Professor Henry Kranzler, the Associate Director of the Alcohol Research Center, and Professor Jonathan M. Covault, Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, regarding the use of stem cells to study the nature of alcohol dependency.
1 in 12 People Meet Criteria for Alcohol Abuse
According to Professor Kranzler, 1 in 12 people meet all the criteria that define alcohol abuse at least once a year, and a much larger number of people drink more than is good for them on a regular basis. Alcohol dependency is a serious and growing problem in the United States.
Professor Covault pointed out that the physical changes brought about by alcohol consumption vary from person to person, and that some people were more at risk of alcohol dependency than others. Also, the medications used to treat alcohol dependency also have quite different effects on different people. The problem is that, up to now, most studies of the molecular changes brought about by alcohol within the individual cell have been based on studies of animals and not human beings.
Molecular Changes due to Alcohol
Which of those molecular changes that have been studied actually apply to human beings is still the subject of debate. It is not possible to use the brain tissues of living people to study these changes; but it is now possible to utilize the expertise gained by stem cell research. Skin cells from human donors can be transformed into neurons, the receptor cells in the brain, and these can be subjected to experiments that measure the effect of alcohol on their individual proteins.
Professor Covault’s team is supplying the expertise in stem cell research needed to conduct these experiments. and Professor Kranzler is supplying his insight into the nature of alcohol dependency. A number of patients who are taking part in trials of novel treatments at the Alcohol Research Center are also supplying the skin cells needed to perform these experiments.
It is hoped that more will be discovered about why different people are affected so differently, both by alcohol and by the medications used to treat alcohol dependency.