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The key to breaking the cycle of alcohol addiction? It could very well be a rodent that can’t get drunk.


By Jamey Smith

Since medical science has yet to pinpoint the exact molecular processes of intoxication and withdrawal, therapies to treat alcohol-related disorders remain hit or miss. Enter neuroscience professor Jon Pierce-Shimomura and his team in UT’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol & Addiction Research, who have made a discovery with the potential to usher in a new era of addiction treatment.

While drinking responsibly is one of life’s simple pleasures for some, for others alcohol fundamentally alters the way their brain works. This may compel them to drink more than they should, and not only that, to enter an endless cycle of debilitating withdrawal symptoms.

Professor Jon Pierce-Shimomura

Professor Jon Pierce-Shimomura

One problem, Pierce-Shimomura says, is that people often won’t take a pill to curtail their drinking when they feel well. They’re more receptive to treatment while experiencing alcohol withdrawal, which can bring symptoms like severe anxiety, tremors, and even seizures.

“Because patients want to avoid these symptoms, withdrawal is an ideal point to intervene in the cycle of alcohol abuse,” he says. “Heavy drinkers who suddenly and significantly curtail consumption experience withdrawal because the sedative effects of alcohol are no longer suppressing normal excitatory brain activity. That, in turn, leads to a hyperactivity that results in anxiety and tremors.”

Unfortunately, current medical treatments mimic the effects of alcohol as doctors treat patients with sedatives to relieve their withdrawal symptoms. The challenge, says Pierce-Shimomura, is to develop an innovative and more specific way to overcome alcohol withdrawal without sedating the patient.

In the United States, where an injury or death occurs every two minutes due to drunk driving, and one in four hospital beds in medical wards is devoted to patients recovering from alcohol toxicity and withdrawal, a proven medical solution to alcohol abuse would be a world-changing breakthrough.

All animals, from worms to mice to humans, become intoxicated by alcohol and experience its withdrawal symptoms, because it acts in the same way on the same molecules in their nervous systems. Knowing this, Pierce-Shimomura and his lab studied how alcohol activates a target in a worm’s nervous system called the BK potassium channel. This channel suppresses neuron activity in the brain, presumably resulting in the sluggishness one feels when intoxicated.

The lab discovered that mutating one portion of the BK channel prevents alcohol activation. Additionally, the mutation significantly reduces alcohol withdrawal. Because mice and humans have this same BK channel, the next step is to introduce the worm’s mutation to a mouse. The goal, says Pierce-Shimomura, is to develop a mutant mouse that stays sober and avoids withdrawal. Given that those are powers that elude normal mice and men, he calls it the Supermouse.

“Positive results would lead to drug development that specifically targets the BK channel,” he says. “It would hopefully signify a novel and truly effective, non-sedative, and non-addictive treatment for those suffering from alcohol abuse.”

To help fund the mouse’s development, Pierce-Shimomura turned to HornRaiser, an increasingly popular online crowdfunding platform for the campus community. Setting a goal of $12,000, the Supermouse! campaign attracted a diverse group of UT alumni and friends who gave a combined $13,148 to help further the research.

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One of those was Tom Calhoon, BBA ’82, who read about the project in the Austin American-Statesman. Inspired by the discovery’s potential, he made a donation that put the campaign over its goal and says he hopes to continue his support.

“I have grown to see the awful side effects of alcohol,” Calhoon says. “I used to think it was not only impossible, but a silly suggestion to quit drinking. My father, a heart surgeon, said to me at the end of his life that he was really surprised I was able to quit. Well, me too! I never take it for granted.”

The beauty of HornRaiser is that compelling projects can catch the attention of people far and wide through social media. Cheryl Lansker of Hawaii, for instance, found out about Supermouse! from a Facebook post of her friend and fellow Aloha State resident Charlene Dyer. Both women donated. Neither had a connection to UT until now.

“Alcohol and drugs have greatly impacted my life, the lives of my family, and many of my friends,” Lansker says. “It’s heartbreaking to see someone active in their disease, and I would like to see better treatments for addiction. This project struck me as having the potential to do just that.”

Supermouse graphic courtesy Connor Murphy/The Daily Texan

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