A six-year study on alcohol effects in worms has led to discoveries that might make it possible for intoxicated people to sober up quickly, and could lead to new treatments for alcoholism
Drinkers might have cause this festive season to raise a glass to a discovery which could lead to the development of a "sober-up" drug that instantly restores composure and good behavior after a night on the tiles.
US researchers have identified a single brain protein that appears to be chiefly responsible for people getting drunk.
They believe the discovery could make it possible to develop a drug that limits the effect of alcohol and quickly sobers up a person.
The research could also pave the way to better forms of treatment for people with drinking problems.
Although the intoxication mechanism was identified in a laboratory worm, the same protein exists in humans.
The way that alcohol acts on the brain is thought to be similar throughout the animal kingdom. Species ranging from worms and flies to mice and humans get drunk with similar alcohol concentrations, relative to their body size.
The protein, called slo-1, acts as a channel that allows electrically charged potassium atoms, or ions, to pour out of nerve cells.
Alcohol seems to make the channel open more often, leading to reduced neural activity and the sluggish, uncoordinated movements typical of drunkenness.
Dr Steven McIntire, from the University of California at San Francisco, said "We have found that alcohol acts on this channel in nerve cells to cause neural depression and intoxication.
"We would expect that the same process functions in humans, who also have this type of channel."
The scientists said a drug that modified the channel, making it less likely to open in response to alcohol, would have a rapid sobering effect.
The breakthrough followed a six-year study of the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which has about 10,000 genes with counterparts in humans.
Worms lacking the gene that makes slo-1 were found to be virtually unaffected by alcohol, often behaving normally even after a binge that should have left them comatose.
Slo-1 controls what is known as the BK potassium channel -- one of more than 200 "gateways" that regulate cell activity by adjusting the flow of ions in and out of cells.
BK channels are active in nerve, muscle and gland tissue in mammals. They govern the release of chemical messengers in the brain, as well as muscle contraction and hormone secretion.
The scientists tested their theory by finding out whether keeping the BK channel open could induce intoxication even when alcohol was not present.
They used chemicals to produce mutant worms in which the channel opened more often than usual, and found that as predicted the creatures acted as if they were drunk.
Other mutant worms with faulty or absent slo-1 genes were highly resistant to alcohol.
Differences in the degree to which the BK channel reacted to alcohol might explain why some people were more susceptible to drink than others, scientists said.
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