UCLA researchers discovered that an anti-inflammatory drug may help people overcome alcohol addiction. Overcoming alcoholism.
Dr. Lara Ray, a UCLA professor of psychology and director of the UCLA Addictions Laboratory, led a study that involved administering the drug ibudilast to people with mild to severe alcoholism who are not seeking treatment. The medication is primarily used in Japan to treat asthma.
“The first thing we needed to do was to make sure the medication was safe when combined with alcohol,” Ray told DrugRehab.com. “That was our primary goal going into the study.”
Previous research showed that ibudilast is effective in reducing alcohol intake in rats. But Ray wanted to see if the medication could be used to treat people with an alcohol use disorder. Specifically, she wanted to know if the drug affected alcohol cravings in heavy drinkers.
“A secondary goal was to find out if there were any changes in alcohol cravings [among participants],” she said. “Do they find alcohol less rewarding?”
The results showed that ibudilast safely interacts with alcohol, lowers alcohol cravings and improves symptoms of depression, a common disorder among heavy drinkers. But does this mean the drug can help people conquer alcoholism?
Ibudilast and Alcoholism
The study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, examined 17 men and seven women. Participants reported drinking alcohol an average of 20.91 days per month, according to the report. When they drank, they consumed an average of 6.64 alcoholic beverages per day.
The experiment had two phases. During the first, researchers gave each participant ibudilast or a placebo for six consecutive days. Those taking ibudilast received 20 milligrams for two days and 50 milligrams for the next four.
At the conclusion of the first phase, participants took about a two-week break. Upon returning, roles were reversed. Those who took ibudilast switched to a placebo for six days, and individuals who took a placebo received the medication for the same period of time.
Overcoming alcoholism depression
Each morning, those assigned ibudilast took the medication and underwent assessments of vital signs and side effects under nurse observation. These individuals took another dose of the drug each evening.
When the study began, researchers asked participants to describe sources of stress in their lives. Ray said that many people drink when they are stressed, so researchers wanted to see if the medication could reduce stress among participants.
“Many of them talked about problems related to relationships, finances and work,” said Ray. “They mainly brought up unresolved problems.”
On the fifth day of each phase of the study, researchers once again discussed these stressful situations with participants. Those who were currently taking ibudilast showed improvements in mood much more quickly than they had upon taking a placebo.
Ray considered this discovery to be one of the most surprising aspects of the study.
“I was surprised by the fact that patients with higher levels of depressive symptoms seemed to benefit more from the medication,” said Ray. “The medication reduced cravings more strongly if they initially showed symptoms of depression.”
On day six of each phase, researchers had participants smell a glass of their preferred alcoholic beverage. Participants reported experiencing more positive moods after taking ibudilast than they had upon taking the placebo.
That evening, participants received an intravenous dose of alcohol, equivalent to about four beverages. The purpose of the IV infusion was to examine how ibudilast interacts with alcohol and whether it could be safely administered when people drink.
Researchers found that the medication safely interacted with alcohol, therefore, it can be safely administered to people who have been drinking. The study results also indicated that alcohol cravings reduced upon taking ibudilast.
“Based on the preclinical evidence, we expect [ibudilast] to help individuals reduce drinking and maintain abstinence in the short or long term,” the study’s authors wrote.
Prior to discharge, participants completed a motivational interviewing session, which encouraged alcohol use reduction and treatment seeking. A master’s-level clinician performed this intervention under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.
During the experimental phases, participants taking the drug showed minimal side effects, such as nausea, constipation and abdominal pain. No participant quit the study, which suggests the drug was well-tolerated.
Ray said additional research is needed to further evaluate whether ibudilast can treat alcoholism. In the future, she plans to test the medication on heavy drinkers who want to quit drinking. She also wants to study how the drug reduces brain inflammation.
Alcoholism Treatment Medications
Ibudilast isn’t approved in the United States for treating alcohol addiction. But several drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration may aid people with alcohol use disorders during treatment.
Acamprosate is used to help people who have stopped consuming large amounts of alcohol to abstain from drinking. It does not relieve withdrawal symptoms individuals may experience upon alcohol cessation. The drug is generally used alongside counseling and social support.
Disulfiram, a drug used to treat chronic alcoholism, causes unpleasant effects in drinkers when alcohol is consumed. These effects include headache, nausea and vomiting. The medication does not cure alcohol addiction, but it discourages drinking.
Overcoming a drinking problem
Naltrexone is a medication that may block the euphoric effects of alcohol. However, it will not prevent you from being impaired while drinking alcohol.
Ray believes testing new treatments for alcohol addiction is important given that the FDA has approved only four treatments for alcoholism, and all have been modestly effective. She said future clinical trials must be conducted to identify new treatment medications to combat alcohol use disorders.
Ray, L.A. et al. (2017, February 8). Development of the Neuroimmune Modulator Ibudilast for the Treatment of Alcoholism: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Human Laboratory Trial. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/28091532/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2012, February 11). Disulfiram. Retrieved from
Wolpert, S. (2017, January 31). Drug shows promise for treating alcoholism. Retrieved from