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Muscle weakness from long-term alcoholism may stem from an inability of mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, to self-repair, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

In research conducted with rats, scientists found evidence that chronic heavy alcohol use affects a gene involved in mitochondrial repair and muscle regeneration.

"The finding gives insight into why chronic heavy drinking often saps muscle strength and it could also lead to new targets for medication development," said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the NIH institute that funded the study.

The study is online in the April issue of the Journal of Cell Biology. Leading the research is Dr. Gyorgy Hajnoczky, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pathology, Anatomy and Cell Biology and director of MitoCare at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Mitochondria are cellular structures that generate most of the energy needed by cells. Skeletal muscle constantly relies on mitochondria for power. When mitochondria become damaged, they can repair themselves through a process called mitochondrial fusion –joining with other mitochondria and exchanging material such as DNA.

In addition to heavy alcohol consumption, Hajnoczky said other environmental factors may also alter specifically mitochondrial fusion and repair. He suggested that identifying the proteins involved in mitochondrial fusion may aid in drug development for alcohol-related muscle weakness. 

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