Researchers at UC San Francisco have identified a molecular pathway in intoxicated fruit flies that is responsible for regulating the flies' meandering, wobbling responses to alcohol. And in the details of the findings, the investigators said, there is evidence of a similar pathway in humans.
The study, reported in the June 12 issue of Cell, and praised in an accompanying review by Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Hugo J. Bellen, DVM, PhD, "lays the foundation for a genetic approach to dissecting the acute, and possibly the chronic, effects of alcohol," said Bellen, and "should increase our understanding of the molecular mechanisms causing drug abuse and addiction in the near future."
The finding, which sheds light on how fruit flies become drunk, aims to address in the future what makes some people more apt to become alcoholics. Previous studies have determined that people who are less sensitive to alcohol's impact are at greater risk for becoming alcoholics, and that the degree of sensitivity to alcohol is genetically influenced. Young men with a family history of alcoholism, for instance, are less sensitive to alcohol than those from families without alcoholism. But researchers have been unable to determine the biological explanation for the relationship between a sensitivity to alcohol and a risk for alcoholism.
In the fruit fly, or Drosophila (Dra-SOPH-i-la), study, led by Ulrike Heberlein, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF and an investigator in the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital, the researchers sought to determine what molecular factors influence a fruit fly's sensitivity to alcohol. They set about this challenge by "knocking out," or removing, different genes from the fruit flies and then exposing the animals to alcohol as a way of revealing the role the missing genes would normally play.