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University research center will expand knowledge of nutrition's role in alcohol disorders

July 20, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Federal alcohol research funding of nearly $8 million to the University of Louisville reflects a resurgence of interest in nutritional components of alcohol-induced disease and treatment for alcohol problems. The resulting establishment of the only nutritionally focused center among 20 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Alcohol Research Centers is expected to expand significantly on the knowledge of how nutritional interventions can target organ injury caused by heavy alcohol use.

“There was a lot of interest in this 30 years ago, and then other things got hot,” says Craig McClain, MD, leader of the university Alcohol Research Center's research team and the university's associate vice president for translational research. “This is getting hot again.”

One contributing factor to the renewed interest, says McClain, is the broader understanding of epigenetics, or the functionally relevant changes to the genome caused by environmental cues. Nutrition's effects on epigenetics will be a focus of several of the university's cornerstone federally funded projects.

A written summary of the center's initiatives states, “There is great potential to rapidly translate nutritional intervention(s) into clinical practice.”

“Our focus is the interaction of nutrition in the development of alcohol-induced injury,” says McClain. Many professionals and the public may be familiar with the content of dietary guidelines that suggest some benefit to one alcohol drink a day for women or two for men, but fewer probably are aware that typical patterns of consuming 15 drinks a day among patients with alcoholic liver disease means a regular caloric intake of more than 2,000 without receiving the normal nutrients, McClain says.

Key projects

The Alcohol Research Center at the university will embark on four initial projects to shed further light on the effects of alcohol on the body:

  • It will examine the role of dietary unsaturated fat in the development and course of alcoholic liver disease. It appears that the balance of individuals' intake of problematic omega-6 fats and beneficial omega-3s has an influence on whether heavy drinkers ultimately develop liver disease.

  • It will evaluate alcohol-induced alterations in the intestine, which also appear to play a critical role in the development of alcoholic liver disease. McClain says that research will examine the potential effectiveness of a specific probiotic in disease prevention and treatment.

  • It will seek to identify the mechanisms under which maternal drinking results in mental retardation in the child, examining how the nutraceutical sulforaphane (found in broccoli sprouts) can provide epigenetic protection.

  • It will examine how chronic alcohol use increases susceptibility to inflammation of lung tissue, and how amino acid therapy may modulate this effect.

McClain points out that the research could shed additional light on beneficial interventions, such as supplementation, that are readily available. “You don't have to go through 10 years of FDA testing,” as with pharmaceuticals, he says.

The research team will brting together professionals from 13 departments within the university. Similarly, says McClain, subgroups within NIAAA that focus on behavior, brain effects and other organ effects are becoming unified around common themes in the understanding of alcohol's impacts.

McClain adds that the designation as an Alcohol Research Center will make the university a resource for others, with a goal of educating the overall healthcare community about nutrition and alcohol.