Missing Brain Protein Implicated in Binge Drinking
People who binge on alcohol seriously increase their chances of experiencing negative short-term drinking outcomes, as well as long-term declines in health. In a study published in May 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from four U.S. institutions examined the influence that the presence or absence of a specific brain protein has on the odds that any given person will binge drink. These researchers also assessed the possibility of using manipulations of the level of this protein as a binge drinking treatment.
Under current public health guidelines, you qualify as a binge drinker if you consume enough alcohol within a two-hour timeframe to push your blood-alcohol content to 0.08 percent (the legal threshold for prosecutable drunkenness in people operating motor vehicles). Most men meet this standard when they consume five drinks in 120 minutes; most women require only four drinks to reach a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content in the same amount of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note significant potential short-term consequences of alcohol binging that include accidental injury, intentional injury due to physical assault, exposure to sexual assault, involvement in unsafe sex and the development of a blood-alcohol level high enough to trigger possibly fatal alcohol poisoning. Recognized potential long-term consequences of the practice include heightened risks for liver disease, nerve damage, uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, heart disease and blood vessel disease.
Binge drinking is fairly common in America, especially among young adults. Roughly 17 percent of all U.S. adults binge on alcohol an average of once a week, and people who binge this often commonly consume much more than the minimum amount required to produce drunkenness. The vast majority of Americans who regularly consume more than a moderate amount of alcohol are binge drinkers. Among people who consume alcohol before reaching the age of 21, binge drinking accounts for about 90 percent of all alcohol intake. If you binge on alcohol with any regularity, you substantially increase the odds that you will one day receive a diagnosis for alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism).
Binge Drinking Assessment and Treatment
Doctors and other trained health professionals can use a technique called brief alcohol intervention to identify people who binge on alcohol, inform those individuals about the potential consequences of their drinking patterns and make referrals to treatment resources. If a binge drinker has diagnosable symptoms of non-addicted alcohol abuse or alcoholism, he or she may receive alcohol treatment in the form of medications such as disulfiram (Antabuse), naltrexone (Vivitrol), topiramate (Topamax) or acamprosate (Campral). Treatment may also center on participation in a change-oriented form of psychotherapy. Alcoholics Anonymous and other mutual self-help groups also provide important resources for people with diagnosable alcohol problems.
Protection Against Alcohol Binging?
In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the University of Minnesota and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai used laboratory experiments on mice to uncover the role that a specific brain protein, called GIRK3, plays in increasing or decreasing the chances that an individual will binge on alcohol. This protein also appears in human brains. During the experiments, the researchers erased copies of GIRK3 from the brains of one group of mice, then gave these mice access to alcohol. In one experimental setting, the mice’s alcohol access lasted for only two hours (i.e., the potential window for binge drinking). In a second experimental setting, the access was ongoing.
The researchers concluded that mice without the GIRK3 protein in their brains don’t increase their drinking levels when they have ongoing access to alcohol. However, when mice without the brain protein only have short-term access to alcohol, their drinking levels rise sharply. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that GIRK3 plays a crucial role in determining whether binge drinking occurs.
The study’s authors believe that absence of GIRK3 promotes binge drinking by making the brain much less susceptible to alcohol’s intoxicating effects and thereby encouraging a short-term increase in intake. They also believe that future researchers may be able to use GIRK3-based therapy to help binge-drinking humans halt their dangerous alcohol use.