According to this article, researchers are examining a new type of therapy for alcoholics through the use of a brain protein. Administration of this protein has been used on rats, with the effect of preventing alcohol relapse, but without impacting other cravings, which has been a problem with previous medications. From the article:
The Gallo Center scientists set out to test the actions of GDNF in a brain site known as the Ventral Tegmental Area, or VTA, a region of the brain thought to be strongly involved in drug-seeking behavior. The first part of the study was designed to model both human social and excessive drinking. Researchers first trained rats to seek alcohol for two months. GDNF was then injected into the VTA brain region, and their motivation to drink in both models dropped significantly within as little as 10 minutes. The effect lasted at least three hours, the scientists reported.
In a second part of the study, rats had access to sugar water, and the scientists showed that after GDNF treatment, the animals still sought sugar -- convincing evidence that increased GDNF did not decrease other, related pleasure-seeking behaviors.
In a third research arm designed to model the risk of relapse behavior, the rats were trained to press a lever to get alcohol. Once they became highly motivated to seek alcohol, it was taken away. At first, they still pressed the lever to get their drink, but eventually they gave up - like people after rehab, Ron says. When alcohol was reintroduced, they relapsed, pressing for the same amount as before. But when they were treated with GDNF, they quickly lost their taste for alcohol.
Further in the article, the authors indicate they are looking to see if any current FDA-approved medications affect GDNF the same way. From a treatment perspective, this would be a very positive step forward in the treatment of alcoholism. Getting an individual to stop using alcohol is one thing, but maintenance often proves much harder. Generally speaking, once an alcoholic gives up drinking, they feel considerably worse for a period of time. It takes awhile for this to improve, as well as to start seeing some of the benefits of abstinence. If a treatment could be designed to reduce an individual’s desire to have a drink, this could buy valuable time for the treatment process to establish itself without having to deal with a relapse.