There are almost no medicines available to treat alcoholism, but that might be about to change. A new study shows that a substance commonly used to treat stomach ailments may also hold the key to reducing the craving for alcohol.
Many of the scientists involved in the study, published recently in Translational Psychiatry, have been studying the molecular mechanisms of alcoholism in the body for years. One focus of their work is the way our bodies produce glucocorticoids, which are steroid hormones that help our immune systems function smoothly and reduce inflammation. People who drink compulsively often suffer from disruptions in the regulation of glucocorticoids in their bodies.
Previous studies have shown that tinkering with these steroid hormones can dramatically alter how much alcohol rodents and humans want to drink, reducing their urge to drink more after they’ve already imbibed. (Rodents are often used as human proxies in studies of addiction because they can become addicted to alcohol—and they have hormones in their bodies that are close analogies to the ones in humans.)
In their new study, the researchers looked for drugs that might regulate glucocorticoids and they discovered something intriguing. Carbenoxolone, or CBX, is a substance derived from licorice root that has long been used to treat ulcers and gastritis. Among other things it can do, CBX dampens activity of an enzyme that enhances the effectiveness of glucocorticoids. Essentially, by taking CBX, you can indirectly affect the glucocorticoid system by dialing back one of the ingredients that makes these steroid hormones so powerful.
The researchers speculated that CBX might therefore work to dial back our urges to binge drink, too. They tested the drug on rodents that were addicted to alcohol and rodents that weren’t—and discovered that in both cases, taking CBX “[reduced] alcohol drinking in rodents in both baseline and excessive drinking models,” making them “promising new targets for the treatment of alcohol use disorder.”
One of the researchers, Scripps Institute neuroscientist Pietro Sanna, told Ars that his group is looking to test the drug in humans because rodents don’t always respond the same way that humans do. The good news is that CBX drugs are already approved for use in humans, albeit for different conditions. So we know the drugs are safe; we just don’t know whether they’ll be effective at preventing alcohol abuse.
But assuming that CBX does affect humans the same way it did the mice and rats in this study, it could prove invaluable for people trying to cut back on drinking. People trying to stay on the wagon often fall off when they come across a “cue” that reminds them of their addiction, like the smell of beer or the sight of a familiar pub. Sanna told Ars that people who took a CBX drug might not feel the urge to drink when faced with a cue. Or if they did have a drink, they might feel satisfied after just one pint and not want to have another.
Once the group tests CBX on humans, they’ll have more information. Sanna and his team have already tested a similar drug on humans, and their subjects reported fewer cravings overall. This could be the beginning of a new era in treatments for alcoholism.