WebMD Health News
Brenda Goodman, MA
Louise Chang, MD
Feb. 15, 2012 -- A drug that helps people stop smoking may also cut alcohol cravings, a new study shows.
The drug Chantix works by blocking nicotine receptors in the brain. Many people who have taken the drug to quit smoking have reported to their doctors that they were drinking less, too.
Intrigued by those reports, researchers have been trying to figure out exactly why Chantix may curb alcohol cravings, and whether it could work as a new treatment for alcohol addiction.
“There are only currently three medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol-use disorders,” says Sherry McKee, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
She says that although those treatments work for some people, “Not all drinkers respond to those treatments, so we need to identify novel targets.”
McKee is studying Chantix for alcohol addiction. She was not involved in the current research.
What’s more, if Chantix can blunt cravings for cigarettes and alcohol, researchers say it could be uniquely beneficial for many people whose smoking habits dovetail with excessive drinking.
“It’s very hard to treat both [addictions] at the same time,” says researcher Emma Childs, PhD, a research associate at the University of Chicago. “This drug could be brilliant because it could treat both of them, really.”
For the study, researchers recruited 15 healthy young adults who were moderate to heavy social drinkers but were not alcohol dependent. On average, they drank at least 10 drinks a week and binged on alcohol at least once a week. They were also light smokers, puffing fewer than five cigarettes daily.
Each person in the study visited the lab six times. In three of those sessions they were given a placebo pill. In the other three, they were given a single dose of the drug Chantix.
Three hours after they took their pills, they were asked to drink a beverage that contained either no alcohol, a low dose of alcohol, or a high dose of alcohol. The low dose was about two drinks' worth of alcohol. The high dose had about as much alcohol as in four drinks, and it was enough to legally intoxicate someone.
The order of the sessions was scrambled so people wouldn’t know which pill they were taking or how much they were drinking.
Before each session, researchers asked people questions about how they were feeling. They also measured their heart rate and blood pressure. People were also asked to put on special goggles that tracked their eye movements as they tried to follow a moving light.
Chantix increased feelings of nausea and generally feeling unwell after drinking, compared to the placebo.
“It did actually increase the negative effects of alcohol, which would counteract the pleasurable effects,” Childs says.
The reason the drug may do that, Childs says, is that alcohol and nicotine may both exert their influence through the same receptor on brain cells.
Chantix blocks that receptor, which appears to blunt some of the physical effects of alcohol.
As expected, as people in the study drank, their performance declined on the eye tracking tests.
But after taking Chantix, people in the study were able to perform some of the tasks just as well as they could before they’d started drinking, suggesting that Chantix was blocking some of the alcohol’s influence.
The study is published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
If larger studies support these results, researchers say the drug could be especially helpful for people who find they can’t pick up a drink without also wanting a cigarette.
“There’s a lot of overlap in the brain with regards to reinforcement for nicotine and alcohol,” McKee says.
Researchers used to think that drinkers were more likely to smoke because they were in a social setting or because it was a familiar habit to do one with the other.
But recent research has uncovered a biological reason why these addictions seem to go hand in hand.
Alcohol works on the same chemical receptors in the brain as nicotine, and it may enhance the pleasurable effects of smoking.
Chantix, experts say, could work on both problems at the same time.
But to be sure, the drug is not without risks.
Last year, the FDA repeated a warning to doctors to closely watch patients taking Chantix for any behavioral changes, including depressed mood, hostility, agitation, and suicidal thoughts. People who experience behavioral changes should stop taking the drug, the agency says.
Another FDA study found that Chantix may also slightly increase certain heart disease and stroke risks in people who already have heart disease. But because the drug doubles the chances that people who take it will quit smoking for as long as a year, and smoking itself increases the likelihood of events like heart attacks and strokes, the FDA concluded that the benefits of taking it still outweigh the additional risks.
SOURCES:Childs, E. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Feb. 15, 2012.Emma Childs, PhD, research associate, department of psychiatry, University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.Sherry McKee, PhD, associate professor, department of psychiatry, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.FDA Drug Safety Communication.
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