SAN DIEGO, June 13 (UPI) -- Researchers found in brain scans of recovering alcoholics that a receptor linked to cravings and addictive relapse is blocked as the brain adapts to recovery, according to a recent study.
Tracking and blocking activity of mGluR5 receptors in the brain may lead to treatments to help patients recovering from alcohol dependency stay sober, say researchers presenting the study at the annual meeting of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging.
Metabotropic glutamate receptor subtype 5, or mGluR5, is found throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as the brain, which plays a role in intense cravings.
In scans, the receptors appear to be blocked in patients farther along in recovery -- helping to reduce cravings -- and researchers think targeting them with a medication could help prevent relapses among patients.
"Collectively, these findings strongly substantiate the development of mGluR5-targeted therapies that heal or protect against the dysfunctional brain circuitry that characterizes alcohol addiction," Dr. Gil Leurquin-Sterk, a professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, said in a press release.
For the study, published in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, researchers performed PET/CT scans of 16 abstinent but alcohol-dependent patients and 32 healthy people between the ages of 27 and 65, determining patterns of alcohol consumption using questionnaires and hair analysis for verification.
The scans revealed that patients who were dependent on alcohol had lower levels of mGluR5 receptors available, suggesting their brains had adapted to addiction, with the reduction acting to reduce cravings.
The researchers say the relationship between the receptor and compulsion to drink may help doctors identify people most at risk for relapse, as well as lead to the development of drugs helping to further limit receptor levels.
"Alcohol addiction is a complex, chronic brain disorder associated with enormous physical, social and financial consequences worldwide, and yet current therapies remain unsatisfactory," said Dr. Koen Van Laere, a researcher at University Hospital Gasthuisberg. "Our team was able to investigate, for the first time, these marked changes in the brain circuitry of alcohol-dependent humans."