Australian scientists say they have found a way of eliminating alcoholic cravings using a drug that blocks the euphoric "high" associated with getting drunk.
The research focused on cells in the hypothalamus region of the brain that produce orexin, a chemical linked to drink or drug-induced euphoria. Scientists at Melbourne's Howard Florey Institute made a compound that blocked orexin's effects, and gave it to rats that had already been turned into alcoholics.
The head of the team, Dr Andrew Lawrence, said the results were remarkable. "In one experiment, rats that had alcohol freely available stopped drinking it after receiving the orexin blocker," he said.
Dr Lawrence said alcoholics could also be prevented from relapsing. Rats that had gone through a detox programme and were then given the blocking drug did not resume their addiction when "reintroduced to an environment which they had been conditioned to associate with alcohol use".
He said: "Orexin reinforces the euphoria felt when drinking alcohol so, if a drug can be developed to block the orexin system in humans, we should be able to stop an alcoholic's craving for alcohol."
The reseach could also be used to treat eating disorders, he said, since it appeared that alcoholic addiction and eating disorders set off common triggers in the brain.
The scientists are now conducting further experiments to find out the precise circumstances that activate the orexin system, which will help them to develop a drug.