New Drug to Reduce Alcohol Cravings Shows Promise

By May Wilkerson 10/19/15

An experimental drug that normalizes dopamine levels may reduce cravings for booze.

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Could this be the “magic pill” to treat alcohol dependency?

An experimental drug that normalizes dopamine levels in the brain may be able to reduce an alcoholic’s cravings for booze, scientists have discovered. The finding was based on two studies: one study, on humans, showed that the drug reduced alcohol cravings. The second study, on rats, revealed that the drug works by balancing out dopamine levels in the brain.

Both studies prove that alcohol dependency can be treated by targeting dopamine, said the co-author of both studies, Dr. Pia Steensland, neuroscientist at Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

Alcohol triggers the brain to release extra dopamine, a hormone that creates a feeling of pleasure. But as more alcohol is consumed, the brain’s reward system becomes desensitized and less dopamine is released. At this point, the individual starts craving alcohol not just to feel euphoria, but just to feel “normal.” This is how addiction sets in.

In the animal study, Dr. Steensland and her colleagues administered a new drug, called OSU6162, to a group of alcohol-dependent rats. They found that the drug returned the rats’ dopamine levels to normal.

In the human study, participants who had taken OSU reported not enjoying their first sip of alcohol as much as the participants who had taken a placebo. After the drink was finished, the OSU group also reported lower cravings for alcohol than the control group.

More than 16 million adults in the United States have some form of alcohol-use disorder, and nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year, according to the National Institutes of Health. But most available drugs to treat alcohol dependency have not proved especially effective. This is in part because the population of patients is genetically diverse, and some drugs only work for certain subgroups.

Another problem with many medications currently available is that they block dopamine altogether, leading to negative side effects like nausea. But in the human trial for the new drug, subjects reported only mild side effects.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/ @alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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