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Mental Health Awareness Month: New Breakthroughs in Gene Editing for Alcohol-Related Damage and Anxiety

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Posted on May 18, 2022, 5 p.m.

The topic of mental health has been catapulted to the forefront of the healthcare community, with chronic stress, burnout, and loneliness rising significantly due to the pandemic and its long-lasting aftereffects. Each year, May celebrates Mental Health Awareness Month, a national movement working to raise awareness about mental health and its escalating prevalence, combat stigma, provide support, and educate the public.

Alcohol, Anxiety, and Adolescents 

Researchers are beginning to make strides towards improving mental health through gene-editing technology, which has already proven efficacious in clinical trials for the treatment of certain diseases, including cancer, cystic fibrosis, and blood disorders. The scientific community is hopeful that this type of treatment could also be used to treat many other physical conditions and mental illnesses ranging from substance abuse disorders to depression and anxiety.

With 60% of people reporting increased alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, alcohol use disorders have become more prominent. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 30% of Americans above the age of 18 report binge drinking – drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL – in the past 30 days, and up to 7% of drinking adults suffers from alcohol use disorder (AUD). The NIAAA estimates that around 95,000 deaths each year can be attributed to excessive alcohol consumption.

In addition to being dangerous, heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk of addiction, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Binge drinking, particularly in adolescence, can lead to long-term psychiatric consequences such as a predisposition to anxiety disorders.

Genome Reprogramming 

Genome editing may be a promising treatment for both anxiety and alcohol use disorder in adults who were exposed to binge drinking in their youth, according to results of a recent animal study published in Science Advances. The team behind the University of Illinois Chicago study has been studying the effects of early life binge drinking on health later in life.

In prior research, the researchers found binge drinking in adolescence to alter brain chemistry at the enhancer region of the Arc gene for activity-regulated cytoskeleton-associated protein immediate-early gene. Their studies also found decreases in Arc expression in the amygdala of both humans and animals.

For their latest study, the authors used a well-known gene-editing method called CRISPR-Cas9, which is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. This technique has significant future potential to streamline genome editing as it is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient. They evaluated the effects of epigenetic reprogramming of the Arc gene in the amygdala on the predisposition to anxiety and alcohol use disorder in adulthood.

Measuring The Impact of Gene Editing 

The researchers used CRISPR-dCas9 to manipulate the histone acetylation and methylation processes in Arc expression in adult rat models. Anxiety levels were measured through behavioral testing, including maze tests, and alcohol preference was measured by the amount consumed by rats when presented with a choice of two liquids, one of varying alcohol concentration and one with zero alcohol.

They began by studying adult rats with intermittent alcohol exposure in adolescence (between ages 10 and 18 in human years). When dCas9 was used, Arc gene expression normalized, and anxiety and alcohol consumption indicators decreased.

The second part of the study examined adult rats without early alcohol exposure in which methylation was promoted using inhibitory dCas9. In this case, Arc expression decreased, and anxiety and alcohol consumption levels increased.

“These results demonstrate that epigenomic editing in the amygdala can ameliorate adult psychopathology after adolescent alcohol exposure,” the authors concluded.

Key Takeaways

Adolescent binge drinking is a significant public health concern and can lead to many physical and mental health complications. The latest research proves the potential of gene editing in the amygdala to mitigate the effects of early life alcohol exposure and subsequent mental illness. This method could result in the development of effective treatments for anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorders.

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