Unhealthy alcohol use is unfortunately very prevalent, not just here in the United States, but worldwide. It is estimated that 3.8 percent of all worldwide deaths are attributable to alcohol addiction. In the U.S., more than 85,000 deaths per year are directly related to alcohol use, with related costs running $185 billion annually. Roughly one in 10 deaths in working age adults results from excessive drinking.
Despite alcohol’s significant contribution to morbidity and mortality, there is still a paucity of effective treatments available for individuals suffering from alcoholism. New research, however, provides a glimmer of hope. A recently published study in the journal Addiction Biology, the Journal of the Society for the Study of Addiction, researchers believe that the drug pindolol, a relatively cheap blood pressure medication, has been shown to be effective in preclinical trials.
“Drugs currently used for AUDs (alcohol use disorders) – acamprosate, naltrexone and disulfiram – have limited success, so this is a ground-breaking development with enormous potential,” stated Selena Bartlett, a professor of neuroscience from Queensland Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. “In an internationally-significant breakthrough, our study showed pindolol was able to reduce ethanol/alcohol consumption, particularly in relation to binge drinking, a key behavior observed in human alcohol dependence.”
According to the research, developing alcohol dependence involves repetitive cycles of binging on, and abstinence from, alcohol. Using this model of alcohol consumption in mice, they were able to determine that an FDA-approved antihypertensive medication, pindolol, was able to attenuate some of the neurotransmitter responses involved in alcohol addiction. Pindolol had greater efficacy in reducing alcohol consumption following long-term (12 weeks) binge intake of alcohol versus short-term (four weeks) alcohol binge.
Pindolol, the scientists reveal, was observed to have an effect on the basolateral amygdala (BLA), a region of the brain that is densely innervated by serotonin and norepinephrine nerve fibers – the precise fibers on which pindolol wields its effect. Given that pindolol is already approved for use by the FDA to treat blood pressure and angina, that approval should serve as the basis for being able to fast-track its use in human clinical trials.
Psychosocial interventions, such as individual or group therapy, can be helpful for individuals with an alcohol use disorder but as much as 70 percent relapse. Most of the pharmacological intervention that have shown promise seem to work on similar neurons as pindolol and that area of the brain that is involved in the dopamine-reward pathway, which can mediate reinforcement of alcohol use. The available medications that have demonstrated the greatest efficacy act on opioid, glutamate, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin receptors.
The burden of the disease of alcoholism is overwhelming, with regard to the number of lives affected and damage it can cause, alcohol is without peer and truly the most dangerous drug in the world. Though we mustn’t hold our breath for a cure, greater understanding of neurobiology will hopefully help build a cache of weapons to battle this beast.