Measuring alcohol levels in breath, blood and now the brain

  • The brain is a critical organ system through which alcohol's effects can lead to intoxication, tolerance and dependence.
  • Scientists have found a new means to measure directly alcohol concentrations throughout the brain.
  • The technology is called proton (1H) magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS).
  • 1H MRS can be used to study closely the physical interactions of alcohol and brain membranes. Most people know about the standard methods used to measure alcohol concentrations in breath and blood, even if they haven't personally experienced apprehension for driving while impaired (DWI). A study in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has refined this ability even further, using proton (1H) magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to directly measure alcohol concentrations throughout the brain. While this new capability won't be applied any time soon to suspect DWI offenders, it will help researchers who seek to understand the biological basis for alcohol abuse.

    "The scientific community is still uncertain about how exactly alcohol causes intoxication, tolerance, and dependence," said Marc J. Kaufman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate research pharmacologist at McLean Hospital. He explained that researchers believe that alcohol's effects are produced by its interaction with brain membranes. Membranes contain protein elements called "receptors" that communicate neuronal activity, allowing us to move, feel, think, and remember. In order to function correctly, receptors must be correctly positioned in membranes. Alcohol appears to adhere to or stick to membranes, thereby disrupting receptor positioning, which leads to altered brain function, intoxication, tolerance, and the development of alcohol problems.

    "For the first time," said Kaufman, "this study documents in the living human brain this adherence phenomenon, called the 'magnetization transfer' effect

  • Contact: Dieter J. Meyerhoff, Ph.D.
    415-221-4810 x4803
    Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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