Humanity continuously improves on past innovations. This adage is reflected across a variety of disciplines and industries, including the medical, industrial and entertainment spaces. Take something as standard as toilet paper – while the technology has not drastically changed, the material is constantly getting softer, cheaper, and more absorbent than previous iterations.
An unfortunate flipside to this evolutionary truth is that we also improve upon ideas and items that can be harmful. Most facets of western society embrace alcohol as a social norm, particularly since it loosens inhibitions and leaves many people feeling relaxed after an evening cocktail. Unfortunately, for many, alcohol is an addictive substance. To those unlucky people, drinking in moderation is not easy. And if abused, alcohol also comes with a host of long-term health effects.
So what if we could eliminate addiction?
The existence of alcohol and other drugs primarily comes out of people’s need for a mental break. Banning alcohol is historically not possible – the brief Prohibition Era of early 1900s America proved that outlawing it entirely only drove the market underground rather than eliminating it. Reducing the public need to drink is a similarly difficult task, as it would require a utopian society where no human has reason to feel unhappy or stressed. But what if we could rewire our brains never to feel the need to order that third, fourth, or fifth round?
A recently published study from the University of Iowa looks to be making significant headway towards that reality. While the research did not involve a human trial, it utilized the next best thing: the vervet monkey, a species native to Africa with a remarkable similarity to humans in how their brains process and interact with alcohol. A previous study from 2011 found that just fifteen percent had minimal interest in alcohol, while the majority fell into categories ranging from “social drinker” to “regular drinker,” depending on how much of a chaser was preferred. Such animals have even been known to sneak into town festivals and other public celebrations to steal their cocktails. A final 5 percent of monkeys were identified as “binge drinkers.”
Iowa researchers have now been able to identify one hormone– fibroblast growth factor 21, or simply FGF21– as the possible determinant of addiction in the human brain. They theorized that because FGF21 was potentially responsible for regulating alcohol desire and consumption, genetic mutations to that hormone could be the reason for the inability of certain humans to self-regulate.
For their study, monkeys were given a choice between identical-looking bottles of ethanol and water. The results went just as predicted. Between the two groups, the test monkeys (who had been given the FGF21 hormone) chose water at a far greater frequency than the control group and drank 50 percent less alcohol overall. To put it plainly– the results show that we’re right on track. There is proof that the FGF21 hormone significantly reduces alcoholic traits in animals with the brain most comparable to humans. This will make massive progress in clearing the way for future human trials of the FGF21 analog and eventually a future where the substance can be prescribed as a legitimate medical treatment for alcoholism.