The present situation
In the EU, an adult consumes on average 11 liters of pure alcohol each year – more than in any other region in the world. The impact on society is enormous, with 23 million Europeans being classified as alcohol addicts, the most severe form of alcohol use disorders. The disorder leads to a loss of 20 years in average life expectancy. As a comparison, smokers lose about 10 years. The urgency to understand more about the changes in the brain of alcohol addicts and to find effective treatments is obvious. So far, research efforts have been made all over the world, but both research and resources were scattered between labs working on the problem individually, with little coordination or interdisciplinary collaboration.
The SyBil-AA team now aims to closely integrate the fragmented research efforts on alcoholism across leading laboratories and clinics in Europe, and to combine this with leading expertise in mathematical modelling. Rapid knowledge transfer between these specialized research groups will enable the collaborators to accomplish a goal not feasible for any one of the participants alone: to identify brain connectome alterations that can point to novel alcoholism treatments, and biomarkers that are predictive of clinical efficacy.
Among the collaborators, leading experts on animal models of alcoholism will build an important foundation through animal experiments. The concepts which they develop will then be validated and extended by human brain imaging studies, in particular functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Findings from both animal and human research will then be analyzed with mathematical tools, to define the network dynamics, make predictions about the effects of manipulations, and build new hypotheses which will again be tested in animal models and humans.
As we learn more about the connectivity of a healthy or alcoholic brain, we aim to find ways to detect vulnerability to alcoholism early in life, and to manipulate the alcoholic brain in a way that leads to more healthy network dynamics. Through a personalized medicine approach we will be able to better help the individual patient.
The future of research
The generation of an interdisciplinary consortium such as the SyBil-AA team will also have tremendous impact on the way research is carried out in the future. A new generation of scientists will be taught to better understand the overall picture, to communicate more easily with scientists from different fields, and to apply their own expertise within such a framework.