New Scientist has an excellent article looking at current attempts to develop a pill that will treat alcoholism or help people reduce their cravings for booze.
It’s a really well-rounded piece that captures the problems with the ‘cure in a pill’ method as well as the neuroscience behind attempts to alter the chemistry of craving and addiction.
Apart from drugs to treat associated mental illnesses, one of the few widely used treatments at the moment, naltrexone, is designed to make booze less pleasurable by blocking opioid receptors, but it is far from effective for everyone:
Naltrexone’s biggest stumbling block, however, is that it fails to treat some of the more painful aspects of abstinence. Drinking dampens the brain’s response to stress – indeed, many heavy drinkers become hooked on alcohol for this reason alone. The result is that going cold turkey without also calming the brain’s stress pathways can be a distressing experience. “People feel just terrible,” says George Koob, a specialist in the neurobiology of addiction at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. “These individuals are miserable. They have panic attacks.”
Targeting these drink-hijacked stress pathways – often without even touching the brain’s pleasure circuits – is now the hottest area in alcoholism research.
And several of the new drugs outlined in the article are designed to do exactly this.
It’s probably worth mentioning that, apart from naltrexone, probably the only other widely used medication is disulfiram, which, rather than change the cravings, just makes the patient unpleasantly ill if they do drink alcohol as a form of chemical dissuasion.
Of course, if the patient is determined to continue drinking, they’ll just stop taking the drug, a problem with all chemical treatments, and so comprehensive addiction treatment needs to be more than just medication.
Link to NewSci on ‘Could popping a pill stop you hitting the bottle?’