New findings about alcohol’s effects on the brain and potential drug treatments that prevent damage to brain cells have led to three federal grants totaling $3.1 million for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
The grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will advance the work of UAMS’ Cynthia J.M. Kane, Ph.D., and Paul D. Drew, Ph.D., professors in the Department of Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences of the College of Medicine. Their studies could become the foundation for medicines that block the toxic effects of alcohol as well as treating alcoholism.
“We’re excited about our findings, and this new round of funding gives us the opportunity to take a major step toward preventing the neurological harm caused by alcohol” said Kane, an alcohol researcher at UAMS. “It is my hope that adults, adolescents and even the fetuses of alcoholic mothers can benefit.”
Kane and her colleagues found in earlier studies that drinking causes loss of neurons in the brain and that glial cells – which provide support and protection for neurons – also are primary targets of alcohol. In addition, they discovered that alcohol’s impact on the glial cells increases the vulnerability of neurons to alcohol damage.
More recently, Kane, Drew and others at UAMS have been studying the signaling mechanisms inside neurons and glial cells that cause alcohol consumption to result in neuron and glial cell death, failed communication between cells, impaired brain function and inflammation within the brain. Their discoveries led to the identification of drugs that block this cascade of events, preventing the inflammation, neurodegeneration and death and dysfunction of brain cells.
Kane’s alcohol research at UAMS was seeded by funds from the UAMS Foundation and has been continuously funded by NIH since 2000. She is the lead investigator, with Drew as co-investigator, on the largest of the three new grants: $1.7 million over five years. The grant will enable Kane and Drew to focus on the mechanisms by which the drugs provide protection against alcohol and evaluate their success individually as well as in combination therapies.
“The drugs we are looking at right now are FDA-approved drugs,” Kane said. “If we find that they work, then they well may be able to be used in humans.”
Drew is the principal investigator and Kane the co-investigator on the other two grants: one for $1 million over two years funded as a highly competitive Challenge Grant award by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the other for $400,000 over two years. Both grants will support continued study of glia’s response to signals produced following alcohol drinking. Their work also will help in understanding the pathology behind alcohol addiction.
“These studies may have important implications concerning treatments designed to protect the brain from the toxic effects of alcohol as well as treating alcoholism,” Drew said.
UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a new 540,000-square-foot hospital, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,775 students and 748 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit www.uams.edu or uamshealth.com.