Varenicline, an already approved drug for us in smoking cessation has proven very promising for the treatment of alcohol dependence as well, and because the drug has already passed through extensive and lengthy safety trials prior to its approval as a smoking cessation drug, it could be helping alcoholics in the very near future.
Additionally, unlike naltrexone, the currently most popular drug used in the treatment of alcoholism, the side effects such as appetite reduction, with varenicline are much less severe.
While early results are very encouraging, the studies have yet to be done on human volunteers, and the drug has of yet only proven effective on rats. One of the selling points of the new drug though is that in animal studies, in addition to helping the animals drink less while using the drug, these animals continued to drink less even after varenicline was no longer given. One of the greatest problems with currently available medications for the treatment of alcoholism is that they offer no lasting protection from abuse, and are only helpful while the patient remains compliant on taking the drugs.
Varenicline (also marketed under the brand names chantix and champix) works by binding to an acetylcholine receptor in the brain. Both nicotine and alcohol ultimately stimulate these acetylcholine receptors, which cause the release of the pleasure creating dopamine. By blocking these acetylcholine receptors in the brain, both alcohol and nicotine are less able to produce a pleasurable response, and the drugs become less attractive to use.
Current studies have only been performed on rats, but rats who had become addicted to alcohol drank half as much after being given the drug and this reduction in alcohol consumption persisted even after the drug was discontinued. Because the drug is already approved safe for human use, it’s use could be expanded for alcohol cessation assistance in the very near future, and because so many alcoholics are also smokers, this drug may prove doubly beneficial by allowing alcoholics to eliminate both alcohol and nicotine addictions simultaneously.
Additionally, because the drug seems to remain effective even after consumption is discontinued, long term pharmaceutical compliance will be less of a factor in relapse. Recent research has indicated that tobacco usage during recovery delays cognitive improvements, and as such if this drug could really help alcoholics quit smoking while they quit drinking, it would be incredibly useful and beneficial.
No drug alone will set alcoholics free from abuse, but new and promising drugs, when combined with existing psycho social and cognitive behavioral therapies should increase the effectiveness of our current therapies, and allow more people to get and stay sober. I am looking forward to hearing more about this promising new drug, and am keeping my fingers crossed that it will work on humans as well as it seems to work on rats!