Curbing Alcoholism

UNC-TV Science: June 12, 2014
New Study Shows Certain Prescription Drugs May Help Curb Alcohol Abuse

About 17 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and alcohol directly or indirectly causes 80,000 deaths in the United States every year. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have been shown to be effective in helping heavy drinkers fight alcoholism and other alcohol use disorders.

But according to a new study from UNC - Chapel Hill, some prescription medications could be a new weapon in the fight against alcoholism.

Many researchers have studied the effects of prescription drugs on alcohol use disorders with different drugs and usually with different findings. Because of the broad array of different studies, it can be difficult for doctors to know which drugs could be useful in treatment and which would not.

Enter Daniel Jonas, UNC professor of medicine and lead author of the new study. He and his colleagues reviewed 123 studies where prescription drugs were used to treat alcohol use disorders. When two studies contradicted each other, the researchers compared the methodology and evidence in each before determining which result to go with.

After this systematic reading, Jonas and his colleagues found that two drugs – acamprosate and naltrexone – both of which are FDA approved to treat AUDs, significantly reduced patients’ likelihood to start drinking again after they quit.

Jonas also found that two off-brand drugs – ones approved by the FDA for uses other than AUDs – were also effective.

Alcohol abuse can harm the liver and cause depression and strokes, not to mention the dangers of drinking and driving. More tools to help those with AUDs decrease their drinking could have broad positive effects on health and the large amounts of money spent on healthcare.

Both drugs the study found to be useful in reducing the urge to drink are recommended for use in conjunction with a recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.