WSU researcher tackles alcohol addiction

WSU researcher tackles alcohol addiction
PULLMAN - It's estimated that nearly 20 million Americans are alcoholics.

While about one in four get treatment, nearly half will relapse within a year. WSU Assistant Professor of Psychology Professor and neuro-scientist Dr. Brendan Walker has been studying the topic for nearly a decade.

He recently received a five-year grant for more than $1million from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"When people actually stop using alcohol they go into a withdrawal state, and what we're trying to do is essentially block the aspects related to withdrawal that are going to make them excessively seek alcohol," said Walker.

Walker is researching how chronic exposure to alcohol affects the brain.

"I think that we're all familiar with endorphins that give the "runners high" and are pleasurable but what I'm targeting are dynorphins," said Walker. "What happens is as a person transitions into an alcohol-dependent state, it seems as though those dynorphins are recruited and are increased in the brain."

So when someone stops using alcohol, they are left with those dynorphins making them feel ill, depressed or anxious.

"People learn very quickly that if they stop using alcohol, 'I feel really bad, but I can drink some more alcohol and I'll feel a little better,'" said Walker. "It becomes this very vicious cycle. But if we can prevent them from a number of those bad aspects, perhaps that will enable them to more easily quit drinking and let their brain re-acclimate to a sober state."

And that's just what Walker's trying to do. The grant allows him to focus on developing new drug therapies to combat alcoholism.

"We're removing a negative state for someone, so treatment compliance is going to go way up," said Walker. "These drugs that we're using and developing are not addictive themselves. People won't take them to try and get high or anything."

Academic and private research into new drug therapies is the pre-cursor to clinical trials conducted by drug companies and the National Institutes of Health.

Walker is hoping this research will lead to a more effective treatment for alcoholism.