New Drug Fights Addiction
March 26, 2001 -- As the Oscar nominated movie Traffic demonstrates, the war on drugs is more like a losing battle. The fight against suppliers loses ground daily, and the demand continues to increase. Now it appears the good guys could have a new weapon, if only the problems associated with it can be ironed out.
A drug called gamma-vinyl GABA, known as GVG, could revolutionize drug treatment in the U.S., if approved by the FDA. It has been studied extensively in laboratory animals, and the next step would normally be very careful clinical trials in a limited number of human subjects. However, right now it's unclear whether those tests are ever going to happen.
"We believe we are going to make a difference," says the author of the most recent animal study, Madina Gerasimov, DDM. "We believe drug addiction is a disease, not a moral weakness, a disease that produces [structural] changes in the brain. We believe this medication can really help addicted people." Gerasimov is an assistant scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with pleasure, and addictive drugs work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain. GVG appears to block increased dopamine levels, thus blocking the increased sensation of pleasure, thereby blocking the craving for the addictive drug.
In the most recent study of GVG, published in the March 7 issue of the European Journal of Pharmacology, researchers trained rats to associate cocaine with a certain environment (either black and white stripes or plain white walls.)
"On the day of the study, they weren't given any cocaine, but were put back in the same environment," Gerasimov tells WebMD. "They experienced increased dopamine levels, just because they'd been put in a space they associated with cocaine. However, in rats that were given GVG, this response was blocked. They did not experience increased dopamine levels."
GVG has been used in many countries to treat childhood epilepsy, but its antiaddictive effects were discovered only recently.
"We seem to have stumbled on a common pathway for all the drugs of abuse," says Jonathan Brodie, MD, PhD, a co-author of the study. He explains that the drug blocks the feeling of craving, the "high" associated with drugs, and the tendency for things associated with the drug to promote craving.
"It's highly unlikely any pill is going to stop a behavior as complex as drug-taking all by itself," he says. "But this drug is a way to block the vicious cycle of craving and reward, long enough for other therapies to take effect. You wouldn't expect to keep people on GVG forever." Brodie is the Marvin Stern professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.