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Thursday December 14, 2000   6:10 PM ET
Alcoholism Changes Brain's Genetic Wiring

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Using the latest DNA technology, scientists in Texas have found that alcohol abuse can alter genes in the brain.

Out of more than 4,000 genes analyzed in brain tissue, about 4% differed by at least 40% between alcoholics and nonalcoholics, researchers report in the December issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

``Just as a computer virus can change the programming of specific functions, our data show that chronic alcohol abuse can change the molecular programming and circuitry of the frontal cortex,'' the study's lead author, Dr. R. Adron Harris, of the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement.

Most of the altered genes are related to white matter in the brain called myelin. Since myelin forms a sheath around the brain's communication cells, the genetic changes may help explain why alcoholics have a higher risk of diseases that destroy myelin, according to the researchers.

Harris and his colleagues used technology known as microarrays, which allows scientists to view thousands of genes at once on a glass microscope slide. The technology has made it much easier to see which genes are expressed, or ``switched on.''

The investigators used two different microarrays to compare genes in a brain region called the superior frontal cortex taken from 10 alcoholics and 10 people who were either teetotalers or social drinkers.

``This study is a beginning to unraveling the undesirable changes in the brain produced by chronic exposure to alcohol,'' Harris said. ``Such studies will, eventually, result in new and better treatments for alcoholism and other addictions.''

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2000;24:1873-1882.

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