Receptors in the brain that are highly sensitive to alcohol may function differently in a person with a family history of alcoholism, according to a Yale study published this month.
The study included 45 healthy subjects, some with a family history of alcoholism and others with no family history. None of the study participants had a drinking problem. All of the participants were administered a placebo or ketamine, an anesthetic that induces alcohol-like effects. Their behavioral responses were then observed. People with a family history of alcoholism were less sensitive to ketamine.
"This study confirms a hypothesis that people with a family history of alcoholism are more vulnerable to alcoholism because they are less likely to get the 'warning signs' of when to stop drinking," said Ismene Petrakis, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry. "In the right environmental and social context, the loss of a potentially important 'brake' on drinking may promote heavy drinking."
The NMDA glutamate receptors, which were the focus in this study, are the highest affinity ethanol targets in the brain. The purpose of the study was to examine whether healthy individuals with a strong family history of alcoholism exhibit alterations in NMDA receptor function.
The Yale research team will next repeat the study to look for genetic variations in reactions to alcohol.
Citation: American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 161: pp 1776-1782, October 2004
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