Neuroscientists from the University of Southampton investigating alcohol dependency and withdrawal in C. elegans worms say they exhibit alcohol-dependent behaviors similar to humans, despite their evolutionary distance, and very simple brain consisting of just 302 nerve cells.

The research, published in PLoS One, shows that withdrawal symptoms could be relieved by small doses of alcohol. However, easing the effects can increase dependency.

In humans, the symptoms are manifested in anxiety, agitation and, in extreme cases, seizures. The worms, as video footage shows, also became overactive in alcohol withdrawal and showed spontaneous and deep body bends – a behavior rarely seen in 'teetotal' worms.

C. elegans

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

"This research showed the worms displaying effects of the withdrawal of alcohol and enables us to define how alcohol affects signaling in nerve circuits which leads to changes in behaviour," said Professor Lindy Holden-Dye, a neuroscientist of the University's School of Biological Sciences.

The study also showed evidence that a particular class of brain-signalling molecule, the neuropeptide, is required for the chronic effect of alcohol on the worm's nervous system.

"Neuropeptides are also involved in chronic alcohol effects in humans and this is leading to new ideas for the treatment of alcoholism, but their precise role is unclear. Our study provides a very effective experimental system to tackle this problem," Holden-Dye adds.

Citation: Mitchell et al., A Differential Role for Neuropeptides in Acute and Chronic Adaptive Responses to Alcohol: Behavioural and Genetic Analysis in Caenorhabditis elegans', PLoS ONE May 2010, 5(5), e10422; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010422