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Alzheimer’s Drug Helps Alcoholics Reduce Drinking

Posted in Relapse Prevention

Alzheimer’s Drug Helps Alcoholics Reduce DrinkingAddiction specialists have a number of options to help people recovering from alcoholism, including several forms of medication and several forms of behavioral therapy. However, since these options don’t necessarily work for all affected individuals, researchers are still exploring new approaches to alcoholism treatment. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Addiction Biology, a group of French researchers explored the usefulness of an Alzheimer’s disease medication, called memantine, in facilitating alcoholism recovery. These researchers concluded that memantine may be useful as an alcohol replacement in people going through potentially destabilizing alcohol withdrawal. 

Alcoholism Treatment

The medications approved for alcoholism treatment in the U.S. — disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral) and naltrexone (Vivitrol) — all address some aspect of chronic heavy drinking’s impact on body or brain function. For example, disulfiram steeply intensifies the unpleasant side effects of drinking in order to deter alcohol consumption during treatment. Acamprosate diminishes some of the worst effects of alcohol withdrawal by correcting alcohol-related changes in brain chemistry, while naltrexone diminishes relapse risks by reducing the amount of pleasure gained from a return to active alcohol intake. A fourth medication adapted for alcoholism treatment, topiramate (Topamax), also helps rebalance the brain chemistry of affected individuals. One of the behavioral therapies for alcoholism, called cognitive behavioral therapy, produces its benefits by helping people in recovery recognize and modify the actions that contribute to a continuing pattern of alcohol misuse. Another approach, called contingency management, uses a voucher- or prize-based incentive system to increase the odds that a person in recovery will remain abstinent from alcohol use and otherwise stay active in his or her treatment program.


Memantine (Namenda) belongs to a chemically diverse group of medications known as NMDA receptor antagonists. These medications, technically classified as anesthetics, block access to sites in the brain — called NMDA receptors — that help provide the basic ability to learn new information and store and recall memories. In a person who habitually consumes excessive amounts of alcohol, damage to these receptors may play an important role in the development of physical dependence and addiction, as well as in the onset of strong alcohol cravings that may encourage a relapse back into active drinking after the establishment of abstinence. In the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, memantine plays its part by slowing down abnormal nerve cell communication inside the brain. While this slowdown does not ultimately stop the progressive worsening of Alzheimer’s symptoms, it can help an affected person retain his or her memory and thought functions for a longer amount of time.

Usefulness in Alcoholism Treatment

In the study scheduled for publication in Addiction Biology, researchers from France’s University of Picardie Jules Verne used laboratory experiments on rats to explore the potential usefulness of memantine as an option for alcoholism treatment. They undertook this project, in part, in response to a lack of rigorous testing of memantine in an alcoholism context. The researchers addicted some of the rats involved in the study to alcohol, then subsequently subjected them to a state of enforced alcohol abstinence. Other rats involved in the testing consumed alcohol, but never developed the symptoms of alcoholism. Both groups of rats received varying doses of memantine in injection form.

The researchers concluded that both the non-addicted and the addicted rats reduced their voluntary intake of alcohol after receiving a relatively large memantine injection. The non-addicted rats completely stayed away from alcohol for approximately six hours after receiving the medication, while the addicted rats going through withdrawal experienced a roughly 50 percent decline in their desire to keep drinking (an effect that lasted for more than a day). However, the researchers concluded that the memantine injections did not reduce the rats’ underlying motivation to drink alcohol. In addition, the medication did not diminish the risks for a drinking relapse in the rats with a well-established, long-term pattern of alcohol abstinence.

The study’s authors believe that memantine may temporarily suspend the urge to drink alcohol by essentially magnifying the impact that alcohol consumption has on the brain and body. In line with this finding, they concluded that the medication likely has no usefulness in the prevention of an alcohol relapse. However, they also concluded that memantine may have usefulness as a short-term alcohol substitute that helps people in the early stages of treatment avoid the worst effects of alcohol withdrawal.