A permanent remedy for binge drinking is not very far from reality. Researchers have found a technique that uses light to stimulate neurons which are highly effective in preventing heavy episodic drinking.
Apart from providing a solution to manage different types of addictions including alcoholism, the technique - known as optogenetics - is expected to help in the development of effective methods to treat neurological diseases like Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, provided solid evidence to prove the link between substance abuse and the amount of dopamine, a chemical messenger linked to addiction, released in the brain.
During the study, researchers from the University of Buffalo in the US fed rats alcohol, gradually making them heavy drinkers. Later Caroline E. Bass and colleagues, using light, stimulated dopamine neurons in the animals' brains. Results showed that the technique, changed the amount of dopamine released in the brain and helped the animals avoid binge drinking. The animals showed positive response to the treatment even after discontinuing the treatment.
"By stimulating certain dopamine neurons in a precise pattern, resulting in low but prolonged levels of dopamine release, we could prevent the rats from binging. The rats just flat out stopped drinking," first author of the study, Dr Bass, said in a statement.
Using a virus, Bass introduced a gene encoding a light-responsive protein into the rodents' brains, further activating a particular subpopulation of dopamine neurons in the brain's reward system.
The new technique based on light works by stimulating only the specific type of neuron and is entirely different from the current techniques based on electricity that is not capable of targeting a single neuron.
"Electrical stimulation doesn't discriminate," Dr Bass said. "It hits all the neurons, but the brain has many different kinds of neurons, with different neurotransmitters and different functions. Optogenetics allows you to stimulate only one type of neuron at a time."