SEARHC, Yale conduct alcohol treatment study

Posted: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

For the first time, researchers are studying how to treat alcohol dependence with naltrexone in Alaska.

Naltrexone is a medication that blocks the effects of drugs known as opioids - a class that includes morphine and heroin. Researchers have found naltrexone can treat not only the effects of opioid drugs but also alcoholism.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved naltrexone in treating alcoholism in 1994, numerous studies have been conducted in the Lower 48 on the medicine's effectiveness. But such studies were never conducted in Alaska, a state that might need it most. Alaska has been ranked consistently in the top five states in the nation in alcohol dependence, abuse and consumption.

During the past three years, researchers from Yale University and the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium have enrolled about 100 Southeast Alaskans to participate in an experimental treatment program.

Preliminary results are expected in about a year.

Project director Robert Robin divides people who want to quit drinking into three groups: one group that takes both naltrexone and Zoloft, one that takes naltrexone and a placebo, and one that take two placebos. All three groups receive counseling and support. Neither the doctors nor the patients know which group they belong to.

Zoloft is a medicine commonly prescribed to people suffering from depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We use Zoloft to reduce the physiological and emotional stress one experiences when going off alcohol," Robin said. "We believe the combination of the two might be more effective than just naltrexone."

Stephanie O'Malley, principal investigator for the trial research, said some preliminary research she had conducted suggested that the combination of naltrexone and Zoloft are more effective than naltrexone alone.

"These findings together with preliminary data collected by others led us to pursue larger studies of the combination, one in the Lower 48 and one in Alaska," said O'Malley, a Yale psychiatry professor who has studied alcohol dependence for more than 20 years.

Robin said another purpose of the study is to determine whether a combination of the medications and counseling is more effective than counseling alone in promoting sustained abstinence from alcohol.

Robin said a number of patients have responded well to the treatment.

"They either remained abstinent or have greatly reduced their consumption and frequency of drinking," Robin said.

Robin expects to have a preliminary report in January. He will share results in all participant communities and with service providers throughout Alaska.

"Alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and it can be treated," Robin said. "We hope the findings will assist service providers everywhere in treating alcoholism in rural locations."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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