“It feels exciting and totally new,” said Elisabeth Jerlhag, one of the researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy, to the Göteborgs-Posten (GP) newspaper.
The hormone ghrelin, found primarily in the stomach as well as the brain, is well-known for its role in controlling people’s appetites.
Previous research on ghrelin has focused on its role in dietary-related diseases such diabetes and obesity.
But the Gothenburg team’s research points to a broader role for the hormone when it comes to the reward systems in people’s brains associated with various types of addiction.
After reviewing previous studies which indicated that alcoholics were found to have higher levels of ghrelin in their blood, Jerlhag and the rest of the team led by Professor Jörgen Engel then examined the genes of 417 people, 138 of whom had sought medical treatment for high alcohol consumption.
“We found variations in the gene for ghrelin which had a strong connection both with high alcohol intake and with obesity,” said Sara Landgren, another researcher in the group, to GP.
The team also found similarities between those suffering from both obesity and alcoholism which indicate that people with a certain variation of the ghrelin gene are more vulnerable to addiction.
The results have led to further research on ghrelin’s role in other forms of addiction in animals, but the results of the new research have been embargoed pending their publication in a scientific journal.
Additional research is being carried out on Swedish women with alcohol problems, and plans are underway to examine the hormone’s affects on other types of drug addiction.
“The idea is to develop a drug which can affect the ghrelin system,” Jerlhag told the newspaper, adding that she and two other researchers have already submitted patent applications.