A new drug can help alcoholics overcome their addiction by reducing stress-induced cravings, a study released Thursday has found.
There is already a drug on the market, Revia, which treats alcoholism by reducing the body's ability to enjoy its effects.
This new drug cuts cravings by taking the edge off of stressful situations which might push recovering alcoholics to pick up the bottle again.
Behavioral stress is a major factor in extending the "vicious cycle" of alcoholism, said lead author Markus Heilig, clinical director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
That's because alcohol deprivation causes depression and increased sensitivity to stressful situations such as an argument with a spouse or tension at work.
"Alcohol is a particularly nasty drug because it actually makes you feel better, but it pushes you to feel worse once you're without alcohol," he told AFP.
The drug Heilig and his team tested targets an area of the brain, the neurokinin 1 receptor, which mediates responses to behavioral stress. It had previously been shown to reduce social anxiety but did not enter the market because results were inconsistent.
Helig and his team first tested its effectiveness on mice and then on a group of 50 alcoholics with anxiety problems who had been through detox and remained hospitalized for the four weeks of the trial.
Half were given a placebo and the other half were given the drug.
Cravings declined over time for all patients in the protected inpatient environment and were minimal in the majority of patients by the end of the study period.
However, those who had been drug showed a more marked improvement in the severity of their cravings when measured by self-reporting questionnaires, the assessment of their clinicians, and tests where they were exposed to socially stressful situations and then told to touch a bottle and smell their favorite alcohol.
Interestingly, there was no impact on anxious or depressive psychopathology which suggests that "the improvements observed might be specific for brain processes related to alcoholism," the study published online in Science Express concluded.
The drug also led to increased brain responses to positive imagery and lessened responses to negative imagery, something which a recent study showed predicts less alcohol consumption over the next six months, tests using MRI mapping showed.
The next step is larger clinical trials to see if the drug can be of assistance to alcoholics who do not suffer from anxiety problems.