An anti-inflammatory drug primarily used in Japan to treat asthma has been shown to significantly reduce alcohol cravings in heavy drinkers, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The medication, called ibudilast, was found to reduce the pleasurable feelings of alcohol and to improve symptoms of depression, common in heavy drinkers of alcohol.
The study involved 17 men and seven women who, prior to the study, reported drinking alcohol an average of 21 days per month and drinking seven alcoholic beverages per day when they did drink.
Study participants were given either ibudilast (20 milligrams for two days and 50 milligrams for the next four) or a placebo for six consecutive days. After about a two-week break, those who took the drug were switched to a placebo for six days, and those who were taking the placebo were given ibudilast.
The participants’ reactions were measured after they were asked to hold and smell a glass of their preferred alcoholic beverage but not allowed to drink it. The researchers found that the participants’ cravings for alcohol was significantly lower when they were taking the medication as opposed to the placebo. Participants taking ibudilast also reported being in a better mood than when they were on the placebo.
In addition, on the sixth day of each phase of the study, participants received an intravenous dose of alcohol — the equivalent of about four drinks — to test how the medicine interacts with alcohol and whether it can be safely administered when people are drinking.
“We found that ibudilast is safe and well-tolerated,” said Dr. Lara Ray, a UCLA professor of psychology, director of the UCLA Addictions Laboratory and the study’s lead author. “This medication can be safely administered, including when people are drinking alcohol.”
Side effects from the drug were mild and included nausea and some abdominal pain. None of the participants dropped out of the study.
Researchers also measured the drug’s efficacy by observing how well participants could recover from a stressful situation.
At the beginning of the study, the researchers asked participants to describe sources of stress in their lives. On the fifth day of each phase of the study — when the participants were taking ibudilast and again when they were taking the placebo — researchers discussed those situations with the participants. The moods of participants taking ibudilast improved much more quickly after hearing about their own stressful situations than when they received the placebo.
The treatment seemed to especially help those in the study who had depressive symptoms, which are common in heavy drinkers of alcohol.
Chronic alcohol consumption elevates brain inflammation in animals, and earlier research showed that ibudilast was effective in reducing rats’ alcohol consumption. It was still unknown, however, whether the drug would also be effective in humans.
Ray notes that many medications that appear effective on animals ultimately fail to help people — a phenomenon she called the “valley of death” of pharmaceutical development. For example, some drugs that have shown promise in rats have caused too many negative side effects in humans.
“We’re excited to see that the strong animal data with ibudilast is now followed by our finding that ibudilast is well-tolerated in humans,” she said.
Ray, who studies the causes of and possible treatments for drug and alcohol addiction, said testing new treatments for alcoholism is critical because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only four treatments for alcoholism, and these have been only modestly effective.
Although the new study is promising, further clinical trials are needed. Ibudilast is not currently available as a treatment for alcoholism.
Ray plans to test the drug on heavy drinkers who express a real desire to quit drinking. (Those in the current study were not trying to quit.) She also plans to study how ibudilast reduces brain inflammation.
The findings are published online in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.