Page last updated: August 14, 2018
Hunger hormone ghrelin influences alcohol consumption

Ghrelin, a hormone synthesised by endocrine cells of the stomach, may be a new promising target to develop novel medications for alcohol use disorder, according to a recent study.

A study by researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides further evidence that Ghrelin, a hormone synthesised by endocrine cells of the stomach, influences alcohol consumption in humans. Researchers led by Lorenzo Leggio, M.D., Ph.D., demonstrated that ghrelin, may be a promising target for developing new medications for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Dr Leggio noted that preclinical studies have shown that ghrelin has complex interactions with the brain, including the brain’s reward and stress pathways. Ghrelin is known mostly for its role in regulating appetite and is often called the “hunger” hormone.

D. Leggio and colleagues conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled study of humans who were heavy drinkers with AUD. The study consisted of two experiments: alcohol self-administration and brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In the study, participants received either ghrelin or placebo, intravenously. In one experiment, the participants could press a button to receive an intravenous infusion of alcohol during the ghrelin or placebo session. The researchers found that ghrelin, compared to placebo, significantly increased the number of alcohol infusions selfadministered by the study participants. Participants were also significantly faster to initiate alcohol self-administration when they received ghrelin, compared to placebo.

In another experiment, study participants receiving either intravenous ghrelin or placebo underwent brain imaging. Imaging data showed that ghrelin increased alcohol-related brain activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain’s stress systems implicated in alcohol-drinking behaviors. The hormone also influenced food-related brain activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. The data indicate that ghrelin affects alcohol-seeking behaviour in humans and represents a potential new target for AUD medications development.

Source: Exogenous ghrelin administration increases alcohol self-administration and modulates brain functional activity in heavy-drinking alcohol-dependent individuals. Farokhnia, Leggio L, et al. Molecular Psychiatry November 14, 2017.

DOI: 10.1038/mp.2017.226
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