Study Shows Promise of Gene Therapy for Alcohol Use Disorder

A form of gene therapy currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease may dramatically reduce alcohol use among chronic heavy drinkers, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University and institutions across the country have found.

The study in nonhuman primates showed that implanting a specific type of molecule that induces cell growth effectively resets the brain’s dopamine reward pathway in animals predisposed to heavy drinking. 

The gene therapy procedure involves brain surgery, and may be useful in the most severe cases of alcohol use disorder.

The study published today in the journal Nature Medicine.

The implanted virus is not harmful and carries a gene that codes for the protein known as glial-derived neurotrophic factor, or GDNF. 

In the case of alcohol use disorder, chronic drinking decreases the release of dopamine.

“Dopamine is involved in reinforcement of behavior, and in people finding certain things pleasurable,” Grant said. “Acute alcohol use can increase dopamine. However, by drinking it chronically, the brain adapts in such a way that it decreases the release of dopamine. So when people are addicted to alcohol, they don’t really feel more pleasure in drinking. It seems that they’re drinking more because they feel a need to maintain an intoxicated state.”

Researchers enhanced dopamine by delivering GDNF to an area of the brain where dopamine is located.

“The monkeys that were treated with this gene permanently started overexpressing dopamine and they decreased their drinking substantially,” Grant said.


Matthew M. Ford, Brianna E. George, Victor S. Van Laar, Katherine M. Holleran, Jerusha Naidoo, Piotr Hadaczek, Lauren E. Vanderhooft, Emily G. Peck, Monica H. Dawes, Kousaku Ohno, John Bringas, Jodi L. McBride, Lluis Samaranch, John R. Forsayeth, Sara R. Jones, Kathleen A. Grant, Krystof S. Bankiewicz. GDNF gene therapy for alcohol use disorder in male non-human primates. Nature Medicine, 2023; DOI: 10.1038/s41591-023-02463-9

Oregon Health & Science University. (2023, August 14). Study shows promise of gene therapy for alcohol use disorder: Already used to treat Parkinson’s disease, researchers found surgical treatment dramatically reduced chronic heavy drinking. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 14, 2023 from

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