Nation & World

‘Alcoholic rats’ study finds a possible way to cut down on a stubborn drinking habit

An injection of human stem cells cut down drinking in “alcoholic rats” by 90 percent, according to a study. One of its authors said the next step is to conduct the test in humans.
An injection of human stem cells cut down drinking in “alcoholic rats” by 90 percent, according to a study. One of its authors said the next step is to conduct the test in humans. Creative Commons

Those who just can’t seem to put the bottle down might be able to take solace in a study of “alcoholic rats.”

Yep, that’s right. Scientists bred these rats to consume what amounts to a bottle of vodka every day for a human, study co-author Yedy Israel told ResearchGate. The critters kept this drinking habit for up to 17 weeks, he said, opting to choose alcohol over water.

Israel and his colleagues wanted to see whether a single injection of human stem cells could curb these rats’ dependance on alcohol. Their findings, published in the journal Nature, signal that the practice has potential to aid those who have developed a stubborn urge for an alcoholic beverage.

Researchers allowed the rats to choose between a sweetened alcoholic drink and water for up to 17 weeks — and then kept them from drinking any alcohol for two weeks, the study says. Scientists injected some rats with human mesenchymal stem cells that came from fat in liposuctions, and then gave them 60 minutes to drink as much water or alcohol as they wanted after their two-week purge.

Those rats that received the injection drank 80 percent to 90 percent less alcohol than expected, the study found, and changes to their alcohol consumption were noticed up to five weeks after the single treatment.

Israel told ResearchGate that the rats with the stem cell treatment drank much more like a social drinker than a person addicted to alcohol.

He explained why scientists think the injection helped rats stay away from alcohol.

“When a single dose of small-sized cells was injected intravenously, it reduced brain inflammation and the oxidative stress in the animals that had consumed alcohol chronically,” he told ResearchGate. “Brain inflammation and oxidative stress are known to self-perpetuate each other, creating conditions which promote a long-lasting relapse risk.”

The next step is to test the effect of stem cells in alcoholic humans, he added.

The study also found that inflammation is common in the brains of people who heavily use substances like marijuana and cocaine, suggesting “the existence of a common mechanism of addictive drug relapse.”

Another study, this one from the Duke University Medical Center, found rats that took donepezil — a drug that treats Alzheimer’s — experienced a reversal of structural and genetic brain damage that they sustained from an alcoholic binge.

In 2015, just under 27 percent of Americans ages 18 or older said they had binge drank in the last month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as four drinks in two hours for women and five drinks in the same time span for men.

An additional 7 percent said in the survey that they had taken part in binge drinking for at least five days in the past month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 88,000 people died in the U.S. between 2006 and 2010 because of the amount of alcohol they drank. That’s a loss of around 2.5 million years of potential life, the CDC says, or an average of 30 years of life for each person who died.