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University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center
Publish Date: 05/17/01
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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New Findings in the Battle Against Alcoholism

Cincinnati--University of Cincinnati (UC) Medical Center researcher, Robert Anthenelli, MD, associate professor of psychiatry, UC College of Medicine and director of substance dependence programs at Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center, reports findings of the relationship between alcoholism and stress in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Anthenelli serves as the principal investigator of a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Department of Veterans Affairs study investigating the adaptation of stress hormones in recovering alcoholics (abstaining from alcohol use for an average of four months). Disturbances in the stress hormones, adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, and the brain chemicals that regulate their release (e.g., serotonin), are linked to behavioral disorders, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and anxiety disorders.

The study measured the release of stress hormones in recovering alcoholics who'd been given a single dose of fenfluramine; a drug formerly used to treat appetite disorders. Fenfluramine increases serotonin activity in the brain, which triggers a response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress axis, a system of inter-connected brain and hormone-producing structures. Anthenelli's study found recovering alcoholics had a two-fold greater hypersensitive stress hormone response to the serotonin-releasing drug and did not return to normal levels as readily as the non-alcoholic comparison subjects. Chronically high stress levels contribute to the development of stress-related diseases, and may lead to stress-induced relapse to drinking in some vulnerable alcoholics.

According to U.S. News and World Report,14 million people currently abuse alcohol or are alcoholics in the United States. Anthenelli's study indicates that some of these alcoholics may possess biochemical abnormalities making them respond to certain stressors differently than non-alcoholics. Understanding more about the mechanisms that underlie these disturbances should lead to improved diagnostic tools and treatment interventions in the battle against alcoholism.

"The results of this study were surprising because all other published research on alcoholics (with shorter alcohol-free periods) found that there was a blunted or unchanged stress response following serotonergic stimulation," Anthenelli said. "The stress hormone response in recovering alcoholics did not return to baseline levels as quickly as it did in non-alcoholic subjects. In other words, it appears that some of the recovering alcoholic subjects had difficulty turning off the fenfluramine-induced stress response."

The outcome of this study will be to further examine the link between stress and relapse in alcoholic behavior as well as to determine if this is an acquired or inherited abnormality.

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