Researchers from University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill report in Nature Neuroscience the discovery that a naturally occurring brain protein can suppress binge alcohol drinking.

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NPY could be a useful treatment for alcohol use disorders and may also prevent some people from becoming alcohol dependent, according to the researchers.

Recently, Medical News Today examined a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found the hormone oxytocin – which is famously produced in humans during acts of intimacy – appears to prevent characteristics of drunkenness, such as impaired coordination, in rats who had been administered enough alcohol to get them “drunk.”

The researchers behind that study, from the University of Sydney in Australia, hope that their findings could provide the basis for new treatments for alcohol use featuring oxytocin.

In the new study, the University of North Carolina (UNC) team used “a series of genetic and pharmacological approaches” to identify a protein in the brain called neuropeptide Y (NPY) that suppressed binge drinking behavior in a mouse model.

Lead author Thomas L. Kash, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of pharmacology and psychology and a member of UNC’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, explains the discovery:

“Specifically, we found that NPY acted in a part of the brain known as the extended amygdala (or bed nucleus of the stria terminalis) that we know is linked to both stress and reward. This antidrinking effect was due to increasing inhibition (the brakes) on a specific population of cells that produce a ‘pro-drinking’ molecule called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF).”

“When we then mimicked the actions of NPY using engineered proteins, we were also able to suppress binge alcohol drinking in mice,” Kash adds.

The team found that this “antidrinking” NPY system is altered by long-term drinking in multiple species, which suggests NPY could be either a marker or treatment for alcohol abuse.

Study co-author Todd E. Thiele, PhD, professor of psychology at UNC and a member of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, elaborates:

The identification of where in the brain and how NPY blunts binge drinking, and the observation that the NPY system is compromised during early binge drinking prior to the transition to dependence, are novel and important observations.”

Prof. Thiele says that what is particularly exciting about these findings is the suggestion that restoring NPY may not only be a useful treatment for alcohol use disorders, but it could also prevent some people from becoming alcohol dependent.

NPY has previously been investigated in an animal model of chronic immobilization stress. Researchers found that in this condition, the synthesis and secretion of NPY is suppressed, which disrupts the brain pathways that regulate feeding behavior, resulting in diminished food intake and reduced body weight among the rats in the study with chronic immobilization stress.

CRF was previously identified as being key to the development and maintenance of alcohol dependence by a team of scientists from The Scripps Institute.

Writing in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2010, the Scripps researchers reported that blocking this stress factor reduced symptoms of addiction, and expressed hope that CRF could therefore be a promising area for future drug development.