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Treating Alcoholism at the Cellular Level

A new study illuminates the brain cell mechanism behind alcohol dependence, suggesting that a drug used to treat chronic pain and epilepsy also reduces alcohol intake. The study, which appears in the Journal of Neuroscience, reports that the drug, gabapentin, restores the communication between neurons that have been damaged by alcohol abuse.

The study's authors, led by Marisa Roberto at the Scripps Research Institute, created alcohol dependence by chronically exposing rats to ethanol in an aerosol or in food. They then tested how much alcohol the rats wanted to drink and examined neural signaling in the central amygdale, the part of the brain that regulates alcohol consumption.

They found that gabapentin reduced alcohol intake in rats chronically exposed to alcohol, but not in rats that were chronically unexposed. Gabapentin also corrected the cellular effects of chronic alcohol exposure.

"This study provides important mechanistic insights," said Robert Messing at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California at San Francisco, an expert uninvolved with the study. "Because gabapentin is well tolerated, this paper provides a strong rationale for large clinical trials testing whether gabapentin is an effective treatment for alcoholism in both detoxified and actively drinking alcoholics."