Can a pill cure alcoholism?

blog-northpointe.JPGYou may have noticed the unusual want ads in local papers: “Alcohol Drinkers Needed”Š” it reads, offering people 18 to 45 $690 dollars to spend 18 days at UVA hospital drinking free booze. Hmm”Šsounds like a college student’s summer dream job! Or a joke. In fact, it happens to be an important research study on a drug called topiramate, currently used to treat epilepsy, which UVA researchers believe could be a treatment for alcoholism.

"What we are trying to show is that alcohol dependence is actually a brain disease in the same way other brain diseases are ... like migraine or epilepsy," says Dr. Bankole Johnson(pictured above), chair of UVA’s department of psychiatric medicine, and the lead investigator in the study. In the course of the 12-week study, Johnson discovered that those who took topiramate were six-times more likely to quit drinking than those who took a placebo.

Dr. Johnson, who recently won the Distinguished Psychiatrist Award from the American Psychiatric Association, the association’s highest honor, has been a pioneer in addiction studies like these. Recently, Dr. Johnson and his colleagues found that ondansetron, a serotonin antagonist drug, reduced dependence on cocaine. That’s good news for cocaine addicts, who have an unusually high relapse rate. Despite 20 years of research on the addiction, no medication has yet been approved by the FDA to combat cocaine dependence. ?The study found that addicts treated with the highest dose of ondansetron found it easier to stay off the drug than people treated with a placebo.

Of course, a pill alone does not an ex-addict make, as UVA researchers admit that behavioral and psychosocial interventions are needed as well, but according to Johnson, these drugs can greatly improve the chance of beating an addiction. In fact, Johnson has even higher hopes for the topiramate study.

"Other drugs prevent alcoholics from relapsing," Johnson told the Cav Daily when he began the study. "This drug can stop somebody from drinking and prevent further relapse."