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Rock Doc: Old drug offers new hope for quitting alcohol

Alcoholism runs in part of my family. I lost a grandfather to it, and a couple of others in the family have been affected by it to greater or lesser degrees. Perhaps something like that is true for you, or maybe you have a friend or co-worker who wrestles with the malady.

This is a challenging time of year for alcoholics trying to stay sober. New Year’s Eve alone can be a real test.

But medical researchers are investigating new ways doctors may be able to help people not drink. One method, recently written up by NPR’s “Shots” website, is a medication called gabapentin. Gabapentin – the generic equivalent of the brand-name drug Neurontin – has been used for years to treat a variety of ailments ranging from epilepsy to bipolar disease to fibromyalgia.

Recently, researchers at the National Institutes of Health did a study of gabapentin and its effects on people with alcoholism. They enrolled 150 people in a 12-week experiment. Everyone who signed up to be part of the study got counseling. Some of the people in the study were given placebos, while others received either 900 or 1,800 milligrams of gabapentin daily.

The people taking the 1,800-milligram dose of the drug were four times as likely to stop drinking completely as the placebo group. And, if they did drink, they were more likely to refrain from heavy drinking. In other words, it looks like gabapentin helped, in study results recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Dr. Barbara J. Mason was the leader of the research effort. She thinks gabapentin is useful to people with alcoholism who are trying to stay dry because it helps lessen some of the withdrawal symptoms people often encounter when they stop drinking.

“Gabapentin improved sleep and mood in people who were cutting down or quitting drinking,” Mason told NPR. Feelings of anxiety and losing sleep are often experiences that drive people to start drinking again, she said.

One good thing about gabapentin compared to some other medications is that it isn’t processed by the liver. That’s important because the livers of people with alcoholism are often damaged from years of drinking. Gabapentin moves from the stomach to the blood to the kidneys and finally into the urine, all mostly unchanged.

But there is still a long road to travel before gabapentin is considered by the Food and Drug Administration as a possible treatment for alcoholism. And even if the FDA took action today to approve gabapentin for such use, people who suffer from alcoholism would still have a tough row to hoe.

“It’s not magic,” Mason said. “And making big behavior changes is hard work.”

Still, it’s good to know researchers may be finding new ways to aid people with alcoholism in the struggle to stay sober.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. 


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