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Pulling A Lever, Kicking The Habit

Italian researchers have discovered that Gamma- Hydroxybutyric acid — also known as GHB, the so-called "date rape drug" — reduces alcohol consumption, promotes abstinence from drinking, suppresses cravings for liquor, and even eases withdrawal symptoms in alcoholics.

In a study at the University of Cagliari, researchers tested whether administering GHB decreases alcohol cravings in specially bred Sardinian alcohol-preferring rats. The rats were trained to press a lever when they wanted a drink, under a program of "operant, oral alcohol self-administration" (i.e., bellying up to the bar). Once the rats had established their tolerance levels and drinking patterns, they were divided up into two groups to test for the effect of GHB on alcohol's motivational strength. (Two control groups of rats drank sucrose instead.) The experiments showed that doses of GHB greatly reduced the rats' desire for alcohol, specifically suppressing the motivational properties of drink.

GHB, widely researched for the first time in the 1960s, was used for decades throughout Europe as a sleeping aid and childbirth anesthetic — until reports of its abuse potential led to a search for alternatives. Since then, GHB has indeed enjoyed wide use as a recreational drug, and in recent years has become known as the date-rape drug because the odorless and colorless sedative is considered easy to sprinkle, in a salt form, into drinks.

The United States Food and Drug Administration only permits the medical use of GHB — under a trade name — to reduce cataplexy attacks in patients with narcolepsy. However, GHB is still used occasionally in Italy as a treatment for acute alcohol withdrawal and longer-term detoxification, and the authors of the Cagliari study say their results are consistent with other clinical studies that have shown the anti-craving properties of the drug.