Why worms get drunk

Scientists find key gene; hope research can help humans fight alcoholism

Dec 12, 2003 - University of California-San Francisco researchers have isolated a gene responsible for drunkenness in worms and hope to apply it to fight alcoholism in humans. It is believed that alcohol affects all animals similarly, so humans may possess a single gene responsible for drunkenness.


"Our end goal is to find a way to cure alcoholism and drug abuse," Dr. Steven McIntire said. "We hope to develop effective therapeutics to improve the ability of people to stop drinking."

When hundreds of thousands of worms were dosed with alcohol, the drunken worms moved slower than sober ones, and they laid fewer eggs. Teetotaler worms formed a neat S shape to power propulsion while the bodies of drunken worms were straighter and less active.

Researchers found during the six-year project that the sober worms had a mutated version of the gene, which appeared to make them immune to alcohol's intoxicating effects. The natural job of the gene they found is to help slow brain transmissions. Alcohol increases the gene's activity, which slows down brain activity even more. But if the gene is disabled, as it was in the sober worms, the brain never gets the chance to slow down.

McIntire and other addiction experts caution that the findings don't apply directly to humans. "Humans are a lot more complicated than the worm," said neurobiology professor Steven Treistman of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.