Research Bar-Lab Examining Alcohol Treatment Possibilities

By McCarton Ackerman 01/14/15

The NIH has set up a fake bar as part of its research into ways to block cravings for alcohol.

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The National Institutes of Health have created what looks to be a fully stocked bar in the middle of the research quarters, but it’s actually a replica designed solely to test if blocking a hormone called ghrelin could help quell alcohol cravings in addicts.

Ghrelin is a hormone in the stomach that controls appetite through receptors in the brain. Lead researcher Dr. Lorenzo Leggio released a study this fall in which 45 heavy drinkers were given different doses of ghrelin and found that their urge to drink rose after the dose was given. His goal with the fake bar, one of 12 similar setups at research centers throughout the U.S., is to determine whether blocking ghrelin can also halt these cravings.

Participants in the study are hooked to a blood monitor in the bar-lab as they smell one of their favorite drinks, which Leggio expects will spark a craving for alcohol. He then uses a drug for diabetes that was developed by Pfizer, but never sold, in the hopes of blocking these cravings. Leggio first needs to determine if mixing alcohol with the drug is safe, but he anticipates having these initial safety results ready by the spring.

If the drug proves to be successful in helping block the cravings, it will join the ranks of three other drugs that have been  approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat alcohol abuse. Naltrexone has been proven to target receptors in the brain’s reward system and ultimately block the positive sensations associated with drinking. The anti-craving pill, Acamprosate calms stress-related brain chemicals in certain people, which can help addicts stop drinking as a coping mechanism, while Antabuse sparks nausea and other negative symptoms if people drink while using it.

Several other drugs have also shown promise in potentially treating alcoholism. The smoking drug Chantix was found in a recent NIAAA study to reduce cravings in heavy drinkers, while scientists at the Scripps Research Institute successful used the epilepsy drug gabapentin to target an emotion-related brain chemical, ultimately reducing relapses in nearly sober drinkers.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania also found that a separate epilepsy drug called topiramate helped reduce alcohol consumption in heavy drinkers, but the drug was only successful in participants who had a gene variation found mainly in people of European descent.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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