The tequila sure looks real, so do the beer taps. Inside the hospital at the National Institutes of Health, researchers are testing a possible new treatment to help heavy drinkers cut back — using a replica of a fully stocked bar.
The idea: Sitting in the dimly lit bar-laboratory should cue the volunteers’ brains to crave a drink, and help determine if the experimental pill counters that urge.
True, there’s no skunky bar odor; these bottles are filled with colored water. The real alcohol is locked in the hospital pharmacy, ready to send over for the extra temptation of smell — and to test how safe the drug is if people drink anyway.
“The goal is to create almost a real-world environment, but to control it very strictly,” said lead researcher Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, who is testing how a hormone named ghrelin that sparks people’s appetite for food also affects their desire for alcohol, and if blocking it helps.
Amid all the yearly resolutions to quit, alcohol use disorders affect about 17 million Americans, and only a small fraction receives treatment. There’s no one-size-fits-all therapy, and the NIH is spurring a hunt for new medications that target the brain’s addiction cycle in different ways — and to find out which options work best in which drinkers.
“Alcoholics come in many forms,” explained Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which has published new online guides, at http://www.niaaa.nih.gov, explaining who’s at risk and what can help.