Genetics Makes Naltrexone Work For Some Alcoholics

As the understanding of the brain’s functioning in response to alcohol consumption is growing, there is an increasing interest in treating alcoholism with medication. Although there have been many tests conducted to determine the effectiveness of drug treatments, there has not been significant success with any particular drug.

A study from UCLA provides new evidence supporting the use of naltrexone for alcoholism treatment in certain people. Naltrexone is one of only three medications that have been approved thus far by the Food and Drug Administration for treating alcoholism.

A genetic predisposition

The study’s results show that a certain gene variant may indicate that naltrexone is a successful treatment. Assistant professor of psychology, as well as director of the Addictions Laboratory at UCLA and lead author, Lara Ray, explains that among Asians, there is an increased concentration of a certain gene mutation that makes naltrexone an effective treatment. Only about 20% of Caucasians possess the mutation, by comparison.

Ray is also a faculty member at the UCLA Brain Research Institute and at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. The study is published online and will be published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

The researchers’ work centered on a trial that tested the effectiveness of naltrexone in comparison with a placebo given to heavy drinkers of Asian descent. Of the participants, 35 were given the equivalent of two or three alcoholic drinks. Each participant was given two rounds of the drinks, one following a dose of naltrexone and the other after being given a sugar pill.

The results indicated that naltrexone was effective in those with a consistent gene mutation, but was not effective in those with other genetic dispositions. The participants for whom the drug was effective reported that they felt more sedated and experienced less disagreeable feelings from intoxication when they were taking the naltrexone, when compared with the placebo.

Personalized medicine

The results were consistent, even when the researchers adjusted for genes that are involved in the metabolism of alcohol, and when the researchers controlled for an “alcohol flushing” response that is commonly noted by those of Asian descent.

The authors of the study note that these results point to an example where personalized medicine is an effective strategy for treatment. Different people react in different ways to medications, but in some cases naltrexone may be a very effective treatment for certain people in treating alcoholism.

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