Alcoholics will be given a prescription drug currently used to treat anxiety and heart conditions in the hope that it will help them quit drinking for good.
Scientists at Cambridge University believe that propranolol may block some of the cravings that addicts have for alcohol, and will reportedly begin a world-first clinical trial later this year to test their theory.
The researchers apparently hope the drug may help prevent what they call ‘cue-drug memory’ – when recollections of certain people and places that are closely linked to alcohol create a subconscious impulse to drink.
The clinical trial follows studies on rats that showed the drug could erase a stimulus in the animal’s brains when they had a craving for a drink.
Propranolol is a beta-blocker that was originally used to treat heart and circulatory conditions, including tremors and high blood pressure, and is also in use to reduce the symptoms of anxiety such as a rapid heart rate or sweating.
It targets the beta-adrenergic receptors in the brain which help to create a strong emotional memory. Scientists believe the drug may work by stripping emotion from the memory.
Lead researchers Dr Amy Milton, from Cambridge’s Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, told The Independent: ‘Traditionally, memory was viewed as similar to a book, which can be shelved but never changed once printed. We now think that memory is more like a word processing document – you can save it and then recall it, at which point you can adapt or even delete its contents.’
Dr Milton will be presenting the team’s initial findings at this week’s Cambridge Science Festival.
The clinical trial – funded by the Medical Research Council as part of a £2.7m five-year programme investigating the drug – is expected to recruit dozens of alcoholics later this year. If successful, it could revolutionise approaches to the treatment of chronic alcoholism.
The announcement comes after a separate small-scale study earlier this month suggested that propranolol may also have the unusual side-effect of combating subconscious racism.
Volunteers given the drug scored lower on a standard psychological test of ‘implicit’ racist attitudes, compared to those given a placebo.
‘Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality. Given the key role that such implicit attitudes appear to play in discrimination against other ethnic groups, and the widespread use of propranolol for medical purposes, our findings are also of considerable ethical interest,’ Experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck, from Oxford University, said.