LONDON - Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have a step closer to understanding how alcohol alters the way brain cells work.
The researchers say that they have identified a binding site for alcohol in an ion channel that plays a key role in several brain functions associated with drugs of abuse and seizures.
They believe that their results could lead to the development of novel treatments for alcoholism, drug addiction, and epilepsy.
Ethanol, the alcohol in intoxicating beverages, is known to alter the communication between brain cells.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the field to find out how alcohol acts in the brain,” Nature magazine quoted Dr. Paul A. Slesinger, an associate professor in the Peptide Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute, as saying.
“One of several views held that ethanol works by interacting directly with ion channel proteins, but there were no studies that visualized the site of association,” added the lead researcher.
He says that his study has shown that alcohols directly interact with a specific nook contained within a channel protein.
According to him, this ion channel plays a key role in several brain functions associated with drugs of abuse and seizures.
In their previous research, Slesinger’s team focused on the neural function of these ion channels, called GIRK channels, which open up during periods of chemical communication between neurons and dampen the signal, creating the equivalent of a short circuit.
“When GIRKs open in response to neurotransmitter activation, potassium ions leak out of the neuron, decreasing neuronal activity,” says UCSD Biology graduate student and first author Prafulla Aryal.
While alcohols have been previously shown to open up GIRK channels, no study ever determined whether this was a direct effect or whether this was the by-product of other molecular changes in the cell.
The researchers say that the identification of the location of a physical alcohol-binding site important for GIRK channel activation could point to new strategies for treating related brain diseases.
They believe that this protein structure may be used to develop a drug that antagonizes the actions of alcohol for the treatment of alcohol dependence.
“(Alternatively) If we could find a novel drug that fits the alcohol-binding site and then activate GIRK channels, this would dampen overall neuronal excitability in the brain and perhaps provide a new tool for treating epilepsy,” says Slesinger.
A research article describing the study has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. (ANI)