University of Sussex Media Release.
. How Fruit Flies Become Bar Flies: The Genetics of Alcoholism

05 April 2001
For immediate release

Why is it that some of us fall down after just a pint or two, whereas seasoned drinkers can quaff gallons before becoming noticeably drunk?

The answer is likely to be in their genes. It's believed the brains of heavy drinkers adapt to alcohol by switching on dormant genes to counteract the effects of alcohol. The bad side, however, is that once these genes are activated, the brain may then need alcohol to work efficiently. This is why alcoholics often need an early morning drink just to get going.

Now a team of Sussex University scientists at the Sussex Centre for Research into Alcohol and Alcoholism and Drug Addiction are to try to identify which genes become switched on by alcohol. This may lead us to understand more about why some people are more likely than others to fall prey to the demon drink.

With a £1/2 million grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the team, consisting of molecular biologist, Dr Lynne Mayne, neuroscientist, Dr Jane Davies and experimental psychologist, Professor David Stephens, will look for how alcohol affects the genes of fruit flies.

It was recently discovered that humans have far fewer genes - 30,000 - than had previously been thought. This is just twice as many as a fruit fly. Even more surprising is that about half the genes in a fruit fly have counterparts in humans. In fact, many basic biological processes in all animals use the same sets of genes. "Although the precise alterations in fly and mammal brains which result in adaptation to alcohol are likely to differ, the genes controlling the switching-on of arrays of other genes may well be related," says Dr Davies.

"We currently know that 1,200 genes are switched on in response to alcohol," says Dr Mayne. "What we don't yet know is which of these are involved in addiction."

Professor Stephens adds: "Alcohol-related problems cause enormous unhappiness and are an enormous drain on our health and social services. Hopefully, this research will help give us a better understanding of alcoholism and perhaps pave the way for eventual treatments."

Notes for editors
For further information, please contact Professor Stephens, Tel: 01273 678638 or Jacqui Bealing, or Alison Field, University of Sussex Press Office, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, J.A.Bealing@sussex.ac.uk or A.Field@sussex.ac.uk

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