MU School of Medicine Researcher Receives $1.8 Million Federal Grant to Study Role of Alcohol in Insomnia and Brain Inflammation

Dr. Thakkar alcohol and brain study

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Mahesh Thakkar, PhD, professor and director of research in the Department of Neurology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, $1.8 million to study the role heavy drinking plays in sleep disruption, insomnia and brain inflammation.

“The major problem alcohol abusers have is they can’t go to sleep,” Thakkar said. “They have to drink alcohol to fall asleep. If they keep drinking, they build a tolerance and need even more alcohol to go to sleep. It has been shown that insomnia is a predictor of alcohol relapse, so we need to find treatments to prevent the insomnia that leads to relapse.”

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug, and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a leading preventable cause of premature disability and death. While there is a direct relationship between insomnia and AUD, the underlying cause is not well understood. This research will study how chronic alcohol consumption directly and indirectly disrupts sleep leading to insomnia, sleep disturbances and brain inflammation in mice.

“We will use live calcium imaging to understand how the cells in the brain are behaving while the animal is drinking alcohol and when it is in a state of withdrawal,” Thakkar said. “The brain cells important for wakefulness are hyperactive in those suffering from AUD, keeping them from falling asleep. The question is why? We believe our research will shed new light on this mechanism.”

The research will also examine whether sleeplessness or alcohol abuse contributes to potentially harmful brain inflammation, which has wide-ranging implications for other diseases in which sleep is disrupted.

“We don’t know whether the inflammation is caused by insomnia or by alcohol abuse,” Thakkar said. “This has a lot of implications. If it is caused by insomnia and associated sleep disturbances, then any person who has sleep disturbances from apnea or restless legs may have brain inflammation because they can’t go to sleep. Brain inflammation is linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis.”

The NIH grant award runs through August 2024.