Protein linked to hunger also implicated in alcoholism

Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have found new links between a protein that controls our urge to eat and brain cells involved in the development of alcoholism. The discovery points to new possibilities for designing drugs to treat alcoholism and other addictions.

The new study, published online ahead of print by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, focuses on the peptide ghrelin, which is known to stimulate eating.

''This is the first study to characterise the effects of ghrelin on neurons in a brain region called the central nucleus of the amygdala,'' says team leader Scripps Research Institute Associate Professor Marisa Roberto, who was knighted last year by the Italian Republic for her work in the alcoholism field.

Roberto says, ''There is increasing evidence that the peptide systems regulating food consumption are also critical players in excessive alcohol consumption. These peptide systems have the potential to serve as targets for new therapies aimed at treating alcoholism.''

Excessive alcohol use and alcoholism cause approximately 4 per cent of deaths globally each year. In the United States, that translates to 79,000 deaths annually and $224 billion in healthcare and other economic costs, according to a 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Key brain region
The brain region known as the central nucleus of the amygdala is thought to be a key region in the transition to alcohol dependence, that is, a biological change from experiencing a pleasant sensation upon the consumption of alcohol to the need to consume alcohol to relieve unpleasant, negative feelings due to the lack of its consumption.