Research Highlights

Research News
Monday, July 18, 2016
You may be familiar with how doctors use pictures from magnetic resonance imaging machines, better known as MRIs, to diagnose injuries and other health problems. But did you know that NIAAA scientists have another technology that harnesses the power of strong magnets to study receptors in the brain that could be targets for alcohol therapies? NIAAA’s Intramural Section on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) uses an NMR spectrometer, which utilizes a strong magnetic field and radio waves to delineate the structure of brain proteins and of the membranes they are embedded in, allowing scientists to design selective new drug molecules that bind to these receptors.
Unlike an MRI machine, an NMR spectrometer is not used directly on patients, but rather on very small samples, which are usually reconstituted highly purified protein-coupled membrane receptors, but could also be a preparation of natural cell membranes. These samples model the highly variable composition of a human cell membrane, allowing scientists to study its properties, including the function of certain receptors. The NMR spectrometer provides detailed information about the shape, dynamics, and interactions of molecules, and has been used in NIAAA studies to deepen our understanding of how substances such as docosahexaenoic acid—an omega-3 fatty acid—interact with membrane receptors. Findings from NIAAA’s NMR studies have important implications for improving our understanding of human nutrition, including the influence of alcohol on the composition and function of membranes.

Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics

Above, NIAAA scientists Drs. Olivier Soubias, Klaus Gawrisch, and Walter Teague (L-R) are pictured in the room that was specially constructed to house the “big magnet.” This device is powerful enough to resolve protein structures but is also so sensitive that it needs to be protected from temperature changes and vibrations in order to produce accurate data.


Reprinted from the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2016.

Research News
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Dr. Bin Gao probes alcohol liver disease
Above: Dr. Bin Gao, Chief of the Laboratory of Liver Diseases in the Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research (DICBR), NIAAA. (Credit: NIH IRP)
The following is an excerpt from a web page feature from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Intramural Research Program (IRP):
While many people may enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage, excessive alcohol consumption causes adverse effects on the body and mind, including changes in mood and behavior, as well as damage to the liver, heart, and pancreas. Not all chronic alcohol users go on to develop advanced liver disease (ALD), but for the 30-40 percent of heavy drinkers who develop severe liver damage—such as alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma (the most common type of liver cancer)—the current lack of effective treatment strategies is sobering.
“While there are effective drugs for other types of liver disease, such as viral hepatitis, the pathogenesis for alcoholic liver damage is still not clear, and there are no approved therapies for ALD,” explains Bin Gao, Ph.D., Chief of the Laboratory of Liver Diseases in the Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “We’re working on multiple research projects at the cellular and molecular level to give us the foundational knowledge to change that.”
► Read the complete NIH IRP feature:
►Watch the NIH IRP video:
►Visit Dr. Gao's web page: Laboratory of Liver Diseases
Research News
Monday, June 27, 2016
Recent NIH-wide efforts to address sex differences in preclinical research underscore the importance of such issues to scientists who study alcohol addiction.
“In fact, animal models of alcohol addiction reveal significant differences between males and females,” says NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D., “but we have little data thus far to help us understand the neurobiological mechanisms for those differences.”
NIAAA’s increased emphasis on research in this area will be informed by a timely new review article, co-authored by Dr. Koob and Dr. Jill Becker of the University of Michigan, titled, “Sex Differences in Animal Models: Focus on Addiction.” Published in the April 2016 issue of the journal Pharmacological Reviews, the article discusses ways to think about and study sex differences in preclinical animal models.
“We use the framework of addiction to illustrate the importance of considering sex differences,” says Dr. Koob, “and we have outlined major quantitative, population, and mechanistic sex differences in the addiction domain. We also emphasize the need for new studies to help us understand those differences.”
Becker, J.B., and Koob, G.F. Sex differences in animal models: Focus on addiction. Pharmacological Reviews 68(2):242–263, 2016. PMID: 26772794
Research News
Friday, February 5, 2016

The concept of addiction as a brain disease is still being questioned. Yet, an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine by NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow, NIAAA Director Dr. George Koob, and Dr. A. Thomas McLellan, co-founder and Chair of the Board of the Treatment Research Institute, further enforces this concept. The review article summarizes recent scientific advances in the neurobiology of addiction....

Read the announcement at



Research News
Friday, February 27, 2015
Author: Gregory Roa

Researchers led by Catherine Fortier at Harvard Medical School found that chronic alcohol misuse damaged white matter in areas of the brain that are important for self-control and recovery from alcoholism. The findings appeared in the December 2014 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Using high-resolution diffusion magnetic resonance brain scans, the researchers compared a group of 20 healthy light drinkers to a group of 31 individuals with a history of alcoholism. The recovering alcoholics drank heavily for an average of 25 years and had been sober for about five years.

Compared with the light drinkers, the abstinent alcoholics showed pronounced reductions in the structural integrity of frontal and superior white matter tracts. According to the authors, the results suggest altered connectivity in frontostriatal circuits—pathways associated with the amygdala, hippocampus, nucleus accumbens, regions that are involved in the brain’s reward system. These networks are essential for controlling impulsive behavior and stopping drinking.

The study also found that longer and heavier alcohol abuse was associated with greater damage. The findings pointed to possible recovery of white matter tissue in drinkers who became abstinent before they turned 50 years of age. 

The authors recommend that future investigations should continue to explore white matter changes due to alcohol misuse, including measurements related to the severity of alcoholism and questions about tissue recovery with maintained abstinence.

Brain images








Image Caption: Brain images from the study; used with permission. Credit: Dr. Catherine Fortier, Harvard Medical School.

Adapted from the story published in the NIAAA Spectrum, February 2015, Volume 7, Issue 1.