Medication Could Prevent Relapse in Alcoholics

Posted on 5/29/2010 by meg


McLean Hospital, an associated institution of Harvard University, has found evidence that the opioid blocker extended-release injectable naltrexone (XR-NTX) has the ability to reduce the response to cues that cause relapse in the alcoholic’s brain. Scott Lukas, PhD, director of the Neuroimaging Center at McLean, states that these findings will explain how the drug reducing cravings for alcohol and could predict who might respond better to this type of treatment.

"These data are quite important since relapse remains a significant challenge in treating patients with alcohol dependence," Lukas said. "It looks to us that XR-NTX can help people remain abstinent by reducing the importance of these cues so they are less likely to relapse." XR-NTX works by blocking opioid receptors in the brain and was approved for the treatment of alcohol dependence in 2006. XR-NTX is commercially available as Vivitrol®.
The researchers used a BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scan to test 28 individuals with alcohol-dependence. They were shown pictures of alcoholic beverages and they were exposed to odors of their favorite alcoholic drinks.

The research was conducted as a double-blind experiment where 15 of the subjects were injected with the extended-release injectable naltrexone and 13 were injected with a placebo.

Imaging results showed sudden changes in blood flow in the brain. All subjects had reported an increase in cravings within the first few minutes of exposure to the cues, however those injected with the extended-release injectable naltrexone reported that cravings diminished after a few more minutes, whereas the other 13 subjects’ cravings remained strong. In only 2 weeks, brain areas associated with the cravings were not as active in those treated with the drug.

Scans were taken at baseline and again two weeks after the injection. Scans of subjects on placebo were virtually unchanged after two weeks. But those subjects on XR-NTX showed significant reductions in activation patterns in areas of the brain having to do with cognitive and emotional processing and reward circuitry on the second scan following exposure to the alcohol cues.
Obviously there is no simple solution to cure alcoholism, but this research could help develop more effective methods for treating the addiction and maintaining sobriety.

Opioid-Blocking Medication Reduces Brain's Response to Alcoholism Cues, Study Finds

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