10 July 2007

One Pill to Stop Smoking AND Drinking? How'd They Do That?

Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol go together like sweating and mowing the lawn. So is it really so surprising that a pill that is approved in the US for smoking cessation, may also work as an aid for alcoholics to stop drinking?
The drug, called varenicline, already is sold to help smokers kick the habit. New but preliminary research suggests it could gain a second use in helping heavy drinkers quit, too.

Much further down the line, the tablets might be considered as a treatment for addictions to everything from gambling to painkillers, researchers said.

....Pfizer Inc. developed the drug specifically as a stop-smoking aid and has sold it in the United States since August under the brand name Chantix. Varenicline works by latching onto the same receptors in the brain that nicotine binds to when inhaled in cigarette smoke, an action that leads to the release of dopamine in the brain's pleasure centers. Taking the drug blocks any inhaled nicotine from reinforcing that effect.

A study published Monday suggests not just nicotine but alcohol also acts on the same locations in the brain. That means a drug like varenicline, which makes smoking less rewarding, could do the same for drinking. Preliminary work, done in rats, suggests that is the case.

"The biggest thrill is that this drug, which has already proved safe for people trying to stop smoking, is now a potential drug to fight alcohol dependence," said Selena Bartlett, a University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist who led the study. Details appear this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pfizer provided the drug for the study, but was not otherwise involved in the research.

....Several experts not involved in the study cautioned that there is no such thing as a magic cure-all for addiction and that varenicline and similar drugs may find more immediate use in treating diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

This is rather fascinating, when you think about it. Of course we all know there is no cure-all for addiction. Otherwise, the inventor of such a cure-all would now be the world's richest person, and we would all have read about it.

Nevertheless, there are few drugs on the market that affect the brain's nicotinic receptor system directly--other than nicotine itself--and this drug is interesting if for no other reason than that. This drug may actually prove to be more effective for treating Alzheimer's Disease than for treating alcoholism--time will tell.

The exact mechanisms of the reward systems in the brain, and how nicotinic receptors are involved, is still being worked out. But the brain's reward system is very central to human motivations and behaviours. This drug and analogs of this drug should prove very useful in ongoing research to tease out the intricacies of these systems.

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