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Researchers at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, the University of Georgia, Brown University and Boston University have discovered that a learning-enhancing medication named D-cycloserine has potential to reduce cravings among patients with alcohol use disorders.

The study, published online yesterday in Translational Psychiatry, is led by Dr. James MacKillop, Peter Boris Chair in Addictions Research and Director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University and formerly Associate Professor at the University of Georgia.

“Cravings for alcohol are often produced by environmental triggers – such as people, places and the sight of alcohol itself,” explains Dr. MacKillop. “Our attempts to reduce these cravings in treatment haven’t been very successful. In this study, however, patients receiving the medication exhibited a steeper reduction of cravings in the presence of alcohol triggers. Moreover, this reduction persisted over time, resulting in very low absolute levels of craving.”

D-cycloserine has been traditionally prescribed as an antibiotic for diseases such as tuberculosis. However, at low doses, the medication is believed to act as a learning and memory enhancer.

“Most existing medications used to treat addictions either replace the drug in a less addictive form to minimize withdrawal, such as nicotine replacement therapy and methadone, or alter the effects of the drug, such as naltrexone,” said Dr. MacKillop. “This approach is qualitatively different – and demonstrates that a learning-enhancement medication has the potential of enhancing behavioral treatment for alcohol use disorders.”

The study was conducted using a translational approach that blends laboratory science with clinical research. Not only did all patients receive evidence-based treatment, plus the active medication or placebo, but part of treatment took place in an experimental bar laboratory at the University of Georgia where they were exposed to alcohol and alcohol-related environmental triggers.

Dr. MacKillop is currently recreating the bar laboratory at the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. By continuing to work with a translational approach to addiction research, Dr. MacKillop hopes to bridge the gap between the research world and the real-world – with the goal of substantially improving clinical outcomes.

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