Could Blocking An Appetite Hormone Help Curb Alcohol Consumption?
The bar inside the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland isn’t a typical happy hour stop. Although it looks and feels like a real bar, it’s actually an elaborate stage for a new experiment. Researchers are testing a new drug that may have the potential to help heavy drinkers curb their consumption.
Appetite hormone linked to desire to consume alcohol
This past October, a group of researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) determined that a hormone called ghrelin can impact a person’s desire to drink. Ghrelin is a hormone released by the stomach that stimulates appetite and food intake. While alcohol is typically viewed as a beverage that affects brain function, it also happens to be a highly caloric food.
Armed with that information, Dr. Lorenzo Leggio and his team set out to see if increased levels of the hormone ghrelin might lead to an increased desire to consume alcohol. After conducting lab tests in which 45 alcohol-dependent men and women were given three different doses of ghrelin, the answer became clear. The urge to drink rose along with the levels of ghrelin present in the test patients, providing evidence that there was a direct correlation between the two.
Researchers use colored water as catalyst to test ghrelin-blocking drug
Now fast-forward a few months and enter the experimental bar inside the NIAAA’s research facility. At first glance it appears to be stocked with alcohol, but every bottle is instead filled with colored water as part of a new experiment being conducted by the same group of NIAAA researchers. The new experience is designed to determine if an experimental drug can actually block the effects of ghrelin and thus, reduce the urge to consume in heavy drinkers.
So why the fake bar? “The goal is to create almost a real-world environment, but to control it very strictly,” Leggio said. Maintaining that balance between a real-world feel and controlled environment is critical to the success of this study. While genetics play an important role in a person’s predisposition to alcoholism, there are a variety of environmental factors that contribute as well. More often than not, these external factors contribute to the difficulties addicts face in overcoming their disease, and can also lead to relapse.
That’s why, in addition to the liquor bottles full of colored water, the researchers occasionally bring in real alcohol to see how the ghrelin blocker holds up in the face of immense environmental triggers, like the smell of a drink or the sight of someone else having one. For obvious reasons, it would be dangerous to just let the patients in this study test the effects of this drug in a truly “live” situation.
All these factors considered, the first priority on Leggio’s list is to determine whether or not this drug is safe to be mixed with alcohol. Once that determination is made, it will open the door for further study of ghrelin and other medicines that may be able to block its effects. One day it may even result in an additional drug being approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat alcohol abuse, alongside the three existing options: naltrexone, acamprosate and Antabuse.
“Our hope is that down the line, we might be able to do a simple blood test that tells you if you will be a naltrexone person, and acamprosate person, a ghrelin person,” said NIAAA Director Dr. George Koob.
Medication is only part of the treatment plan
Alcoholism can be a crippling disease. The ability to identify additional medications that could help curb its effects in people who are suffering is an exciting prospect, but it is important to remember that medications are far from a miracle solution. In order to truly overcome this disease, one must take a comprehensive approach to treatment and work on all the factors that may be contributing to it, whether they are mental, physical, environmental or otherwise. If you or someone you love are struggling with alcohol, get the comprehensive treatment you need today. Call The Watershed today at 1-800-861-1768.Tags: addiction research, heavy drinking