50度灰

News

Alcohol and drugs rewire your brain by changing how your genes work

Research is investigating how to counteract addiction鈥檚 effects
Karla Kaun
By Karla Kaun
March 31, 2024

Many people are wired to . Your brain interprets food as rewarding when you are hungry and water as rewarding when you are thirsty. But addictive substances like alcohol and drugs of abuse can in your brain, resulting in intolerable cravings and reduced impulse control.

A popular misconception is that addiction is a result of low willpower. But an explosion of knowledge and technology in the field of has changed our basic understanding of addiction drastically over the past decade. The general consensus among scientists and health care professionals is that there is a for addiction.

As a investigating the molecular mechanisms of addiction, I combine neuroscience with genetics to understand how alcohol and drugs influence the brain. In the past decade, I have seen changes in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of addiction, largely due to a better understanding of how genes are dynamically regulated in the brain. New ways of thinking about how addictions form have the potential to change how we approach treatment.

Alcohol and drugs affect brain gene activity

Each of your brain cells has your genetic code stored in long strands of DNA. For all that DNA to fit into a cell, it needs to be packed tightly. This is achieved by winding the DNA around “spools” of protein . Areas where DNA is unwound contain active genes coding for proteins that serve important functions within the cell.

When gene activity changes, the proteins your cells produce also change. Such changes can range from a single neuronal connection in your brain to how you behave. This genetic choreography suggests that while your genes affect how your brain develops, when you are learning new things is dynamic and adapts to suit your daily needs.

Recent data from animal models suggests that alcohol and drugs of abuse directly influence in areas of the brain that help drive memory and reward responses.

Karla Kaun and Vinald Francis, CC BY-ND
Within each neuron in the brain, how tightly DNA is wound around or bound to histones and other proteins determines which genes are expressed and which proteins are produced.

There are addictive substances can change gene expression. They can alter which proteins bind to DNA to turn genes on and off and which segments of DNA are unwound. They can change the process of how DNA is read and translated into proteins, as well as alter the proteins that determine how cells use energy to function.

For example, alcohol can cause an alternative form of a gene to be expressed in the memory circuits , resulting in changes in dopamine receptors and transcription factors involved in reward signaling and neuronal function. Similarly, cocaine can cause an alternative form of a gene to be expressed in the , leading them to seek out more cocaine.

Exactly how these drugs cause changes in gene regulation is unknown. However, a direct link between alcohol consumption and changes in gene expression in mice provides a clue. A byproduct of alcohol being broken down in the liver called acetate can cross the blood-brain barrier and in mouse memory circuits.

Alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and opioids also all activate important signaling pathways that are . This suggests they can also affect many aspects of neuronal function and consequently affect which genes are expressed.

Changing brain gene activity with lifestyle

How addictive substances change cell function is complex. The version of a gene you’re born with can be modified in many ways before it becomes a functional protein, including exposure to alcohol and drugs. Rather than discouraging researchers, this complexity is empowering because it provides evidence that changes to gene expression in your brain aren’t permanent. They can also be altered by medications and lifestyle choices.

Many commonly prescribed medications for mental health disorders also affect gene expression. can change how DNA is modified and which genes are expressed. For example, a commonly prescribed drug for depression called escitalopram affects how tightly wound DNA is and can change the expression of genes important to brain plasticity.

Additionally, can specifically change which genes are expressed to treat diseases like cancer. In the future, we may discover similar therapies for alcohol and substance use disorder. These treatments could potentially target important , altering how brain circuits function and how alcohol and drugs affect them.

stock photo of yoga pose
Lifestyle choices can also affect gene expression in your brain, though researchers don’t yet know whether they can alter the changes induced by addictive substances.

Like alcohol and drugs, can affect gene expression in many ways. In flies, a high sugar diet can by tapping into a gene expression network involved in development.

, even after only , can also affect gene regulation in your brain through similar mechanisms. Attending a reduces the expression of genes that affect inflammation, and experienced meditators can reduce inflammatory genes after just .

Work in animal models has also shown that exercise changes gene expression by altering both directly attached to DNA. This increases the activity of genes important to the activity and plasticity of neurons, supporting the idea that and can decrease the risk of dementia.

From and beyond, many factors can have profound effects on your brain biology. Taking steps to reduce consumption of alcohol and drugs and picking up healthy lifestyle practices can help stabilize and bring long-lasting benefits for your physical and mental health.The Conversation

This article is republished from under a Creative Commons license. Read the .

Enjoy reading 50度灰 Today?

Become a member to receive the print edition monthly and the digital edition weekly.

Learn more
Karla Kaun
Karla Kaun

Karla Kaun is an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Brown University. She is a behavioral neurogeneticist fascinated with the genetic, molecular and cellular mechanisms of memory and addiction. 

Related articles

From the journals: February 2019
Gelareh (Abulwerdi) Vinueza, Kerri Beth Boggs & Sasha Mushegian
A new channel for touch
Max Delbrück Center
Petsko receives National Medal of Science
Marissa Locke Rottinghaus

Get the latest from 50度灰 Today

Enter your email address, and we鈥檒l send you a weekly email with recent articles, interviews and more.

Latest in Science

Science highlights or most popular articles

Environmental DNA is everywhere
News

Environmental DNA is everywhere

April 14, 2024

The ability to extract trace bits of DNA from soil, water, and even air is revolutionizing science. Are there pitfalls?

Early COVID-19 research is riddled with poor methods and low-quality results
News

Early COVID-19 research is riddled with poor methods and low-quality results

April 13, 2024

The pandemic worsened, but didn鈥檛 create, this problem for science.

From the journals: MCP
Journal News

From the journals: MCP

April 12, 2024

Three views of mass spec: analyzing secreted protein spectra, imaging mass spectrometry for clinical use and spectral libraries for MS data analysis. Read about these recent papers.

Understanding the fat science
Journal News

Understanding the fat science

April 9, 2024

Researchers at UCLA investigate lipid remodeling in the liver for energy generation.

No oxygen? No problem
Journal News

No oxygen? No problem

April 8, 2024

By studying how electric fish survive in hypoxic streams for months at time, researchers may find new ways to target tumors.

Molecular sensor enables water bear hardiness by triggering dormancy
News

Molecular sensor enables water bear hardiness by triggering dormancy

April 6, 2024

Cysteine oxidation may contributes to tardigrades鈥 remarkable hardiness and help them survive in ever-changing environments.