In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Danny Winder of Vanderbilt University explains why the effects of alcohol can vary widely among individuals.
Danny Winder is an associate professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University where his research lab focuses on understanding the synaptic mechanisms behind anxiety and addiction. His work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from Emory University.
Dr. Danny Winder – Neurology of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol use disorders are a tremendous burden on society. In contrast to drugs of abuse, which have very specific targets within the brain, alcohol is a liquid that has the potential to act in many ways. Thus, understanding the particular molecular targets for alcohol will provide critical insight into how it produces its effects on behavior – and should point to ways to treat alcoholism.
For some time, we have known that alcohol blocks the activity of a class of proteins known as the NMDA receptors. NMDA receptors regulate the long-term strength of synapses in the brain, the sites where brain signaling occurs and memories are stored.
NMDA receptors come in different “flavors” based on the particular protein parts that make them up and each of these distinct flavors has unique effects on brain function. An open question in the alcohol research field has been whether the type of NMDA receptor is important for alcohol’s actions.
To address this question, we studied nerve cell activity in a region of the brain that is thought to be important in alcohol dependence. We looked at nerve cell activity – with or without alcohol present – in mice with normal NMDA receptors and in mice missing a particular NMDA receptor part, called the GluN2B subunit. When the GluN2B subunit was missing, the nerve cells didn’t have normal responses to alcohol. We also found that NMDA receptors with the GluN2B subunit were important for regulating synaptic activity after prolonged alcohol exposure, which would occur in people with alcohol dependence.
Our results suggest that NMDA receptors containing the GluN2B subunit are important for alcohol’s actions and that these receptors might be a valuable target for the treatment of alcoholism.