Many people have the New Year’s resolution to quit drinking, or to quit drinking so much. But for many, this is not a resolution that they can so easily keep. This is why researchers at the National Institute of Health are looking at how a hormone named ghrelin, which sparks the desire for food and alcohol, works if blocked.
Alcohol use affects about 17 million Americans. NIH is looking for new medications that target the brain’s addiction cycle. As Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says “Alcoholics come in many forms.”
Treatments can range from inpatient rehab to 12 step programs and behavioral therapy. Less than a third of people who actually need treatment get it, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Less than 10% receive medications.
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In the NIH bar lab they are finding that there is an overlap between receptors that fuel overeating and alcohol craving in the brain’s reward system. The NIH team gave 45 heavy-drinking volunteers different doses of ghrelin this fall and found that the urge to drink rose as the level of hormone rose. Now, lead researcher Dr. Lorenzo Leggio is seeing if blocking ghrelin’s action also blocks the cravings. Volunteers are smelling a favorite drink and being monitored for the cravings they feel.
As Koob said, “Our hope is that down the line, we might be able to do a simple blood test that tells if you will be a naltrexone person, an acamprosate person, a ghrelin person,” Koob said.