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A Happier Hour

A new pill could end the battle of the bottle

August 2003

by Amanda Gallagher

Alcoholism - itís often a bitter battle conquered with counseling and gritty determination.

But in a landmark discovery, Health Science Center researchers found a new way for alcoholics to curb the cocktail cravings. Itís a drug called topiramate, currently used to treat epileptic seizures. A team led by Bankole A. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., showed topiramate also effectively reduces alcohol cravings and inhibits the brainís ability to experience pleasure from drinking.

Dr. Johnson is the William and Marguerite Wurzbach Distinguished Professor at the Health Science Center, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology, deputy chairman for research in the department of psychiatry, chief of the division of alcohol and drug addiction and director of the South Texas Addiction Research & Technology (START) Center, where he and his team conducted the research.

The study involved 150 participants ó all considered heavy drinkers. Those drinking an average of 9.59 drinks a day received topiramate and low-intensity counseling. Those drinking an average of 8.85 drinks a day received the same
low-intensity counseling with a placebo. The results?

"Patients who took topiramate were six times more likely than those who received placebo to be continuously abstinent for at least one month during the three-month trial," Dr. Johnson said. "Over the same period, those taking the placebo were four times more likely to drink heavily for an entire month during the trial."

The study lasted three months. At the end of the trial period, participants taking topiramate limited their drinking to 1.5 alcoholic beverages a day. Those taking the placebo drank 3.36 drinks a day.

The study results appeared in the May 17 issue of The Lancet and immediately gained international attention. While the drug has not yet been approved for the treatment of alcoholism, it could quite possibly open the door to an entirely new class of medications to treat the disease.

"Although at present we have few pharmacologic agents to treat alcoholism, research groups such as Professor Johnsonís are working hard to provide new treatment alternatives," said Raye Z. Litten, Ph.D., chief, Treatment Research Branch, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). "If this promising finding is replicated and topiramate is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it should bring new hope to many who struggle with this devastating disorder."


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