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A new study in flies finds that alcohol hijacks this memory formation pathway and changes the proteins expressed in the neurons, forming cravings. Just a few drinks in an evening changes how memories are formed at the fundamental, molecular level.
The findings were published on Thursday, Oct. 25, in the journal Neuron.
Karla - Kaun - Assistant - Professor - Neuroscience
Karla Kaun, assistant professor of neuroscience at Brown University and senior author on the paper, worked with a team of undergraduates, technicians and postdoctoral researchers to uncover the molecular signaling pathways and changes in gene expression involved in making and maintaining reward memories.
"One of the things I want to understand is why drugs of abuse can produce really rewarding memories when they're actually neurotoxins," said Kaun, who is affiliated with Brown's Carney Institute for Brain Science. "All drugs of abuse -- alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine -- have adverse side effects. They make people nauseous or they give people hangovers, so why do we find them so rewarding? Why do we remember the good things about them and not the bad? My team is trying to understand on a molecular level what drugs of abuse are doing to memories and why they're causing cravings."
Researchers - Molecules - Cravings - Alcoholics - Addicts
Once researchers understand what molecules are changing when cravings are formed, then they can figure out how to help recovering alcoholics and addicts by perhaps decreasing how long the craving memories last, or how intense they are, Kaun said.
Fruit flies have only 100,000 neurons, while humans have more than 100 billion. The smaller scale -- plus the fact that generations of scientists have developed genetic tools to manipulate the activity of these neurons at the circuit and molecular level -- made the fruit fly the perfect model organism for Kaun's team to tease apart the genes and molecular signaling pathways involved in alcohol reward memories, she said.
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