The anti-smoking drug varenicline may also be able to help problem drinkers cut down on alcohol, a preliminary study suggests.
In a study of 20 smokers who were also heavy drinkers, Yale University researchers found that those who took varenicline for one week became less interested in drinking.
They reported less craving for alcohol, and, when given the chance to have a few drinks in the laboratory setting, they opted to drink less than their counterparts who'd been given a placebo.
The findings are published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Varenicline, sold under the tradename Chantix, was approved in the US in 2006 to help smokers quit their habit. It works by acting on a brain receptor for nicotine, blocking some of nicotine's effects while also creating a nicotine-like "buzz" to curb withdrawal symptoms.
There's some evidence that alcohol also acts on this brain receptor, raising the possibility that varenicline could help cut heavy drinking - a common problem among smokers.
"A medication such as varenicline, which may target shared biological systems in alcohol and nicotine use, holds promise as a treatment for individuals with both disorders," Dr Sherry A. McKee, the lead researcher on the new study, said in a written statement.
For the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, McKee's team recruited 20 smokers who drank heavily but were not alcoholic. Half of the participants took Chantix for a week, and half were given placebo pills.
The researchers then gave each participant a dose of alcohol in the lab to see what their responses would be. Afterward, the men and women were allowed to have up to eight alcoholic drinks if they chose.
In general, McKee's team found, the varenicline group reported less alcohol craving and less of a "high" following the initial alcohol dose. And when given the chance to drink more, varenicline users had less than one drink, on average, compared with the placebo group's two to three drinks.
Eighty percent of the varenicline group chose not to drink at all, whereas only 30 percent of the placebo made the same decision, the researchers found.
"We anticipate that the results of this preliminary study will trigger clinical trials of varenicline as a primary treatment for alcohol use disorders, and as a potential dual treatment for alcohol and tobacco use disorders," McKee said.
There were no serious side effects among varenicline users, according to the researchers.
There have, however, been safety concerns raised about the drug since its approval, including reports of suicidal thoughts and behavior in some varenicline users. After a review of those reports last year, the US Food and Drug Administration called on Chantix maker Pfizer Inc. to boost the prominence of the drug's label warnings.
SOURCE: Biological Psychiatry, online March 2, 2009. – (Reuters health, March2009)