Genes and alcoholism link explored: Study

March 03, 2016

The neighborhood Wilhelmsen located is home to the CYP2E1 gene. This gene has long held the interest of researchers interested in alcoholism, because it encodes an enzyme that can metabolize alcohol. Most of the alcohol in the body actually gets metabolized by another enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, which works in the liver. But CYP2E1 doesn't work in the liver; it works in the brain. And it works differently than other enzymes, generating tiny molecules called free radicals, which can be reactive and rather nasty to sensitive structures like brain cells.

"It turns out that a specific version or allele of CYP2E1 makes people more sensitive to alcohol, and we are now exploring whether it is because it generates more of these free radicals," said Wilhelmsen. "This finding is interesting because it hints at a totally new mechanism of how we perceive alcohol when we drink. The conventional model basically says that alcohol affects how neurotransmitters, the molecules that communicate between neurons, do their job. But our findings suggest it is even more complex than that."

In the future, drugs that induce CYP2E1 could be used to make people more sensitive to alcohol before they've taken their first drink, or even to help sober them up when they've had one too many. But Wilhelmsen thinks the most exciting aspect of his finding is that it could change the focus of how research into the underpinnings of alcoholism is conducted.

SOURCE University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine