Could An Asthma Drug Treat Alcoholism?

By McCarton Ackerman 02/06/17

The medication ibudilast was found to lower cravings for alcohol in a recent study.

Man sitting on couch with drink.

One of the most common asthma medications in Japan could have worldwide benefits in treating alcoholism.

The findings, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, examined a drug known as ibudilast. Researchers from UCLA tracked 17 men and women who reported drinking—on average—21 days per month and seven alcoholic beverages per sitting. Participants were either given ibudilast or a placebo for six days, then switched substances two weeks later for the same period. They were also intravenously injected with the equivalent of four alcoholic drinks to see how well the drug responded to alcohol in the system. 

The scientists found that ibudilast both lowered cravings for alcohol and boosted overall mood, even when the drinkers were confronted with alcohol they weren’t allowed to consume. In addition, there were no adverse effects to the intravenous injection of alcohol. Ibudilast may also have the added benefit of alleviating depression, a common symptom among problem drinkers. 

"We found that ibudilast is safe and well-tolerated," said study lead author Lara Ray, a UCLA professor of psychology. "This medication can be safely administered, including when people are drinking alcohol."

However, ibudilast isn’t approved for treating alcoholism, and the researchers say that more clinical testing is needed. Only a handful of drugs are currently approved for this, including naltrexone and Antabuse. However, many of these medications can produce side effects including nausea; naltrexone's other potential side effects include stomach pain, anxiety and increased or decreased energy. The possible side effects of Antabuse include skin rashes, acne, fatigue and a loss of interest in sex.

In October 2015, a research project out of Sweden also showed a potential "cure"—an experimental drug that normalizes dopamine levels. The findings were based on two studies: the first was on humans, which showed that the drug (known as OSU6162) reduces alcohol cravings and overall pleasure from drinking. Only minor side effects were reported. A second study on alcohol-dependent rats revealed that the drug balanced dopamine levels in the brain and ultimately restored them to normal.

Data from the National Institutes of Health shows that more than 16 million American adults have some form of alcohol use disorder and nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year.

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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.