New Alcohol Use Disorder Drug Targets The Brain’s Stress System

By John Lavitt 10/05/16

The experimental medication may help reduce consumption in people with alcohol use disorder.

New Alcohol Use Disorder Drug Targets The Brain’s Stress System

As the Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), George F. Koob has been looking for a drug to effectively treat alcohol use disorder (AUD).

In a statement from last Thursday, Director Koob explained how, “Medications have become an important tool for treating alcohol use disorders, but current medications are not effective for all people with AUDs. We’re committed to developing new medications to provide effective therapy to a broader spectrum of people with AUDs.”

In recent weeks, the NIAAA has reported an important breakthrough. According to a new study by NIAAA researchers, an experimental medication that targets the stress system of the brain can help reduce alcohol consumption in people with AUD. Led by Raye Litten, acting director of the NIAAA Division of Medications Development, researchers found that the new compound, called ABT-436, proved to be surprisingly effective. Designed to block the effects of vasopressin, a neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus of the brain which is involved in regulating stress and anxiety, the effects of the drug were analyzed in a randomized clinical trial of people with a history of alcohol dependence.

Reported online in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, 144 alcohol-dependent adult men and women were recruited for the 12-week study. Over the course of 28 days, male participants consumed at least 35 drinks per week. In contrast, female participants consumed at least 28 drinks per week. 

Once the active stage of the clinical trial began, participants received either placebo tablets or ones containing the ABT-436 compound that blocks the effects of vasopressin in the brain. “Vasopressin helps to regulate the pituitary adrenal axis and other brain circuits involved in emotion,” detailed Dr. Litten. “As such, it plays a role in regulating stress, anxiety, and their interaction with AUD.”

Beyond the participants’ alcohol consumption, their mood changes and smoking habits were monitored as well. Participants receiving ABT-436 achieved longer periods of alcohol abstinence than those receiving the placebo. And participants who previously reported high stress levels seemed to respond even better to ABT-436. Both the frequency of their alcohol consumption and the number of heavy drinking days decreased.

“Our findings suggest that potential future studies with drugs targeting vasopressin blockade should focus on populations of people with AUD who also report high levels of stress,” speculated study author Megan Ryan, a clinical project manager in the NIAAA Division of Medications Development.

Beyond drinking, ABT-436 might also prove to be an effective treatment drug for smoking cessation. Study participants that took the new compound also experienced a reduction in smoking. Since ABT-436 targets the same areas in the brain that relate to withdrawal and stress, it is possible that the reduction in smoking and drinking is a result of a decrease in this symptomology. Since this is only the first clinical trial for the new compound, more study will be needed to confirm these potential findings. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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