A team of researchers in Texas recently did something extraordinary. They made a genetic tweak to worms' brains that made it impossible for them to get drunk. More specifically, the scientists modified the worms' genes so that a molecular channel that binds alcohol to their brains would no longer work. And humans have a similar molecular channel.
The experiment they used to test their findings sounds pretty simple. "We tried a brute force approach, testing hundreds of mutations to empirically determine which one would allow the BK channel to function normally [while still] preventing alcohol from activating it," Jonathan Pierce-Shimomura, a neuroscientist on the team at the University of Texas at Austin told the Verge. They then tested each mutation by putting the affected worm in a dish full of alcohol. Instead of slowing down and wiggling in weird ways, the ones with the modified channel were unaffected. They acted as if the alcohol wasn't there at all.
This could be big. The University of Texas study, published this week, represents the first time that scientists have prevented an animal from becoming intoxicated by altering a molecular channel that humans also possess. That means that a similar process could eventually, far down the road, be tested on humans.
"Why would humans want to avoid getting drunk?" you might wonder. Well, it would be a huge help for those who struggle with alcohol dependency. The researchers point out that even if they can find a drug to alter the same channel in humans, alcohol might still have an effect since it targets several different parts of the brain. Nevertheless, this new study represents progress in a field where progress should be celebrated. [Verge]
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