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Solvent Alcohols Partially Block Brain Poisoning Caused by Drinking Alcohols

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WebMD Health News

March 20, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Some types of alcohol can block one of the ways that drinking alcohol poisons the brain, according to new studies published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's no reason to start drinking the solvents stored under the sink -- but the findings point the way to safer compounds that might one day prevent fetal alcohol syndrome in the children of women who can't stop drinking while pregnant.

"We agree and support the surgeon general's recommendation to avoid drinking during pregnancy," study author Michael F. Wilkemeyer, PhD, tells WebMD. "This is definitely not equivalent to a morning-after pill. These experiments were undertaken to understand the role of alcohol [in damaging brain cells]. All these things might lead to a [drug] that could be taken at the same time as alcohol for a very limited population, but alcohol in general is a complicated socioeconomic issue just like tobacco use."

The new studies show that alcohol has very specific effects on brain cells, and that these effects can be blocked by compounds with just the right size and shape. Several poisonous alcohols -- called higher alcohols because they are made up of relatively large molecules -- don't hurt brain cells in the same way as drinking alcohol (known to scientists as ethanol). Moreover, these higher alcohols block one very important toxic effect of ethanol -- its ability to interfere with a protein needed for normal brain development. The same protein also helps adults perform normal memory tasks.

"The excitement in the field is that if you could find a certain shape alcohol has to fit into [in order to interact with a protein], you can design [compounds that block it]," Michael E. Charness, MD, leader of the VA Boston Healthcare System/Harvard Medical School research team, tells WebMD. "The higher alcohols are themselves intoxicants and have other toxicity as well. We view them as starting points. ... We are working very hard to find other compounds that would be safer."

Of course, women should not drink during pregnancy. But Charness notes that there may be times when an alcohol-blocking drug might be useful. "There are certainly some women who, hard as they try, can't stop drinking," he says. "What we hope is that if there is a safe compound that could be given to pregnant women and prevent effects on the developing fetus, it could be part of their prenatal care. Such [a] compound must be absolutely safe by itself and something that you could give a pregnant woman -- a tall order."

Wilkemeyer agrees that no pill could ever be better than avoiding alcohol abuse, but he suggests that such drugs might also find uses in the treatment of alcoholic adults.

In an interview with WebMD, Antonio Noronha, PhD, chief of the neuroscience and behavior research branch of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), praises the work of Wilkemeyer.

"There is no [brain] receptor for alcohol, as there is for cocaine and other drugs," he says. "This is the first study to show that there are actual proteins to which ethanol binds. [These proteins] seem to have a role in memory and learning and other cognitive processes in the adult brain -- it would be interesting to see whether in adults consuming alcohol it has some effect in terms of the memory lapses you see in chronic alcoholics. Whether there can be [drug treatment or prevention] with that or not, I don't know."

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