Mutation Blocks Drunkenness (At Least In Worms)
Imagine a James Bond drug that gave spies superhuman abilities to drink their opponents under the table while staying sober themselves, no matter the martinis. Scientists have another interest in keeping alcohol’s intoxicating effects at bay, namely to help alcoholics cope with addiction and withdrawal. Last year they discovered a way to prevent alcohol from activating a key target in the brain. They created mutant worms that can’t get drunk.
The worms in question, Caenorhabditis elegans, typically model intoxication by crawling more slowly, wriggling less, and no longer laying eggs. Eggs build up in their bodies, and scientists can count them.
Worms genetically engineered with the modified human alcohol target, based on a mutation discovered by neuroscience graduate student Scott Davis, showed none of these usual signs of having had too much. An alcohol target is any neuronal molecule that binds alcohol. Luckily, the mutation of this particular modified target, a neuronal channel called the BK channel, only affects its response to alcohol. That means no disruption to other important functions that the channel typically regulates, such as activities in the respiratory tract, neurons, blood vessels and bladder.
Alcohol’s effects on the body are complex, though, and have many targets across the brain. That means more research will be needed to find out whether the mutation affects tolerance, craving, withdrawal and other relevant human symptoms that can’t be measured in worms. But Jon Pierce, assistant professor of neuroscience and member of the Waggoner Center, speculates that eventually the mutation used in the worms could lead to a drug that would help alcoholics and counteract the intoxicating and potentially addictive effects of alcohol.