Epilepsy drug holds promise as potential treatment for alcoholism

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. A drug used to treat epileptic seizures may be prescribed to help alcoholics control their addiction, a new study suggests.

A drug used to treat epileptic seizures may be prescribed to help alcoholics control their addiction, a new study suggests.

The drug topiramate proved evidently better than a placebo at helping alcoholics stay away from heavy drinking, the study authors said. “Not only is there an effective new treatment, but there’s a medication that you can take at the time of crisis. You can start immediately when you need help,” said study author Bankole Johnson, chairman of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences.

For many alcoholics, the main source of treatment is their own resolve and utilizing the “Twelve Steps” developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Only a small percentage of people battling alcoholism help their addiction by taking prescription medication.

In the study, conducted between 2004 and 2006, Johnson and his colleagues recruited 371 alcoholics between the ages of 18 and 65. The subjects, both male and female, received daily doses of topiramate—up to 300 milligrams—or a placebo along with a brief weekly visit with a counselor.

Both treatments seemed to help patients. Over 14 weeks, the percentage of heavy-drinking days per week dropped from 81.9 percent to 43.8 percent among those who took topiramate and from 82 percent to 51.8 percent among those who took a placebo. While the results are very close in numbers, it is apparent that alcoholics hinder their drinking if they have a distraction.

Topiramate also led to a higher rate of achieving 28 or more days of continuous non-heavy drinking and 28 or more days of continuous abstinence, the researchers said. The drug appears to work by cutting the craving for alcohol, according to Johnson.

The findings are published in the Oct. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

There are side effects with topiramate, Johnson said. The drug “can make you dizzy, give you headaches and the feeling of pins and needles in your fingers. Some people have difficulty naming words, which goes away after about a week.”

According to Johnson, the drug can set people back about $1,000 for three months. And patients don’t see benefits for two to four weeks, but topiramate holds promise, he said. “We’re talking about a drug that will be many times better than what is currently available,” he said. “And it doesn’t require you to go to rehab.”

The next step, Johnson said, is to study whether people can safely take topiramate for long periods of time.

Ortho-McNeil Janssen makes topiramate and funded the study.

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