Alcoholism presents unique challenges to physicians and therapists. Chronic abuse of alcohol often leads to the development of mood problems that inevitably complicate the recovery process. In other cases, preexisting mood disorders may predispose someone to developing an alcohol addiction. Estimates vary, but the rates of depression and anxiety in those addicted to alcohol are as much as twice those of the general population. When a recovering alcoholic experiences anxiety or depression, the likelihood of relapse is about 75%. Clearly, addressing these comorbid mood problems is an important step toward a solution to the public health crisis of alcoholism.
Both anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications have been used successfully to ease the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. In the early stages of recovery, anxiety is extremely common. Long-term abstinence from alcohol becomes difficult when a person is severely depressed. Antidepressants and cognitive therapy both seek to give those recovering from alcohol addiction a stronger foundation on which to build a life of sobriety. A recent study with rats offered compelling evidence that the antidepressant Norpramin (desipramine) works to counteract both anxiety and depression in people who abuse alcohol.
For 2 weeks, rats were exposed to alcohol vapor until their blood alcohol readings achieved a clinically significant level. Some rats also received daily doses of Norpramin after the alcohol exposure. Two rat species were represented in the study, one genetically disposed to depression and another not disposed. At the 7- and 14-day marks, the rats were subjected to a maze test, a mobility test, and a forced swim test. These tests provided approximate measures of anxious or depressed symptoms. For example, depressed rats are believed to spend less time swimming and more time floating when placed in deep water. By the end of the study, unmedicated rats showed increases in both anxiety and depression, regardless of species. In contrast, the medicated rats showed no such mood alterations.
The results of this rat study offer hopeful possibilities for better treatment of alcoholism in humans. If the negative symptoms of alcohol abuse and withdrawal can be reduced or eliminated, then recovery will be a far less difficult process. More research is necessary to determine if and how the rat study results transfer to humans. Specifically, researchers will be curious to learn if other types of antidepressants might be even more effective than Norpramin.
- PubMed Health. (n.d.). National Center for Biotechnology Information. Desipramine. Retrieved March 26, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0000665/
- Getachew, B., Hauser, S. R., Taylor, R. E., Tizabi, Y. (2008). Desipramine blocks alcohol-induced anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors in two rat strains. Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior, 91(1), 97-103.
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