New Treatment to Reduce Alcohol Consumption Targets Brain Receptor, Not Dopamine

By Paul Gaita 08/31/15

Treatments targeting brain receptors could be less expensive than current medications.

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Researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Johns Hopkins University are collaborating on a new treatment for alcoholism that focuses on a receptor in the brain and not dopamine levels. Their efforts have yielded positive results from both laboratory rats and primates, and without the side effects that frequently accompany other alcohol treatments, such as depression.

Traditional treatment for alcoholism targets the production of dopamine, which is produced when alcohol is consumed. Such medications, like Valium, are derived from opioid antagonists and can produce a range of side effects, from depression to addiction to the treatment drugs themselves. “They dampen out the dopamine system a little bit, so you don’t get happy when you have an alcoholic beverage,” said James Cook, Ph.D, from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Cook and his fellow researchers focused their attention on specific alcohol receptors; molecules in the brain that produced the same results as the opioid antagonists, but without the side effects. They discovered that a beta-carboline compound named 3-ISOPBC-HCI showed the greatest depress of promise in regard to preventing binge drinking: tests using laboratory rats bred with an addiction to alcohol showed a drastic drop in consumption after administering the compound.

The compound also appeared to alleviate stress responses in the test rats, leading the researchers to believe that the new compounds produce not only a different response than the opioid antagonists, but also reduce an addictive reaction to the compound.

Similar tests with the compound conducted on primates by researchers at Johns Hopkins showed a decrease in alcohol consumption by more than 90% in scenarios where alcohol was made available to the animals for a two-hour period. The tests are part of a series of studies that may be published in a year, though the results of the tests involving rats were presented at a meeting of the American Chemistry Society on August 19.

If the teams’ testing continues to yield positive results, treatments could be made available within the next five to six years. V.V.N. Phani Babu Tiruveedhula, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, believes that the treatment would also be less expensive than current medications because the manufacturing process has been reduced from eight steps to two and has eliminated unwanted byproducts.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.