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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

‘Hair of the dog’ may help alcohol withdrawal symptoms but it also increases alcohol dependency

Published: 5 May 2010
Researching 'Hair of the dog'

A study at the University of Southampton provides new insight into how alcohol affects brain function. Research in the School of Biological Sciences is defining the impact of alcohol on signalling in nerve pathways

Drinking alcohol over a long period of time profoundly affects the brain, which adapts to the intoxicant and causes withdrawal symptoms when consumption stops.

Neuroscientists from the University of Southampton’s School of Biological Sciences investigated alcohol dependency and withdrawal using tiny 1mm long C. elegans worms. Despite the worm’s evolutionary distance from humans, and very simple brain of just 302 nerve cells, it exhibits similar alcohol-dependent behaviours.

Worms before and after exposure to alcohol
C. elegans

The research showed that withdrawal symptoms could be relieved by small doses of alcohol. However, easing the effects can increase dependency.

In humans, the symptoms are manifested in anxiety, agitation and, in extreme cases, seizures. The worms, as video footage shows, also became overactive in alcohol withdrawal and showed spontaneous and deep body bends – a behaviour rarely seen in ‘teetotal’ worms.

Professor Lindy Holden-Dye, a neuroscientist of the University’s School of Biological Sciences and member of Southampton Neurosciences Group (SoNG), led the study. She comments: “This research showed the worms displaying effects of the withdrawal of alcohol and enables us to define how alcohol affects signalling in nerve circuits which leads to changes in behaviour.”

Funding for the research came from a joint Medical Research Council/Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council initiative in the 'Neurobiology of Mental Health'.

The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, also showed evidence that a particular class of brain-signalling molecule, the neuropeptide, is required for the chronic effect of alcohol on the worm's nervous system.

Professor Holden-Dye adds: “Neuropeptides are also involved in chronic alcohol effects in humans and this is leading to new ideas for the treatment of alcoholism, but their precise role is unclear. Our study provides a very effective experimental system to tackle this problem.”

Images and videos courtesy Professor Lindy Holden-Dye

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Lindy Holden-Dye

Worms undergoing [ethanol] withdrawal [as shown in each of the 3 videos] had a distinctly different locomotor pattern consisting of many spontaneous deep body bends and turns.

Professor Lindy Holden-Dye - Leader of the study

Notes for editors

The research team, led by Professor Lindy Holden-Dye, included Dr Vincent O'Connor (School of Biological Sciences), Professor Christopher James (Institute of Sound and Vibration Research), Ben Grace and Dr Steven Glautier (School of Psychology).

 ‘A Differential Role for Neuropeptides in Acute and Chronic Adaptive Responses to Alcohol: Behavioural and Genetic Analysis in Caenorhabditis elegans’ can be accessed on the PloS ONE website:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0010422

For further information contact:

Sophie Docker, Media Relations Officer, University of Southampton Tel: 023 8059 8933 email: S.Docker@soton.ac.uk

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