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Drug to Treat Nausea Also May Help Alcoholics Stop Drinking

WebMD Health News

Aug. 22, 2000 -- The first time Francisco Gomez took a drink at age 15, it was like a "runaway train," he says. "From the beginning, I would drink until I blacked out. From that point on, I basically lived to drink. I joined the military and was stationed on a nuclear submarine that went on 90-day patrols. Of course, there was no drinking, but the minute we hit shore I went straight to a bar."

Alcohol had cost the 48-year-old Texas man three marriages, countless jobs, and the right to see his two children by the time he sought help for his addiction last year through the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. It was there that he learned he fit the classic profile of an early-onset alcoholic, and it was there that he got the help he needed to stop drinking.

Gomez was one of 321 alcoholics who took part in a study combining intensive behavioral therapy with the drug Zofran (ondansetron), now used to treat nausea caused by chemotherapy. The therapy, known as cognitive behavioral therapy, helps alcoholics to abstain by improving their ability to deal with situations that can cause them to seek out alcohol, the researchers say.

Researcher Bankole A. Johnson, MD, PhD, and colleagues found that Zofran, which targets the chemical messenger serotonin in the brain, appeared to help those patients who fit the profile for early-onset alcoholism. Their findings were reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We have learned that one of the important features of early-onset alcoholism is that these people have an abnormality in their serotonin system," Johnson tells WebMD. "This does not mean that they don't have other abnormalities, but that the abnormality of serotonin is important."

Studies suggest that 25 to 30% of alcoholics fit the early-onset profile, which includes having family members who are alcoholic; binge or problem drinking beginning in the teens or early 20s; and the early development of social problems related to drinking. Most early-onset alcoholics also are born risk-takers, according to James Mulligan, MD, medical director of Pennsylvania's Caron Foundation. The Caron Foundation is one of the nation's oldest alcohol centers, treating some 6,000 patients each year.

"About 95% of the kids in our adolescent center fit the profile," Mulligan tells WebMD. "They know they are different, and it is good that they know that. We believe that substituting the risk-taking behavior of drinking for some other risk-taking behavior is important. We take our young people rock climbing."

Drug therapies are not widely used to treat alcoholism, mainly because they have not been shown to be very effective in the past. There currently are only two drugs approved for use in the U.S. -- Antabuse (disulfiram), which makes people sick when they drink, and ReVia (naltrexone), which seems to dull the rewarding or "buzz" effect of alcohol. A third drug, acamprosate, which works by curbing cravings for alcohol, is expected to win FDA approval soon.

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