Professor researches young adult alcohol dependency

Johnson’s study to evaluate effectiveness of anti-nausea medication in reducing alcohol craving, binge-drinking tendencies in 300 young adults ages 18 to 25

University researchers are preparing to launch a study that has the potential to influence the way alcohol dependence in young adults is treated.

Bankole Johnson, chair of the department of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, will lead a clinical test of the effectiveness of ondansetron, traditionally used as an anti-nausea medication, in treating alcohol abuse in adults ages 18 to 25.

“Ondansetron ... contains a chemical that reduces [the] craving for alcohol and binge drinking,” Johnson said.

The clinical study will involve eight weeks of treatment with the drug, Johnson said, including two sessions of psychosocial intervention and follow-up monitoring. Three hundred people who are currently binge drinking will take part in the study, he said, most likely including a number of University students.

The study — which will take about four years to complete, according to Johnson — is being funded by a $3.2-million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Raye Litten, associate director of the division of treatment and recovery research at NIAAA, said the institute is particularly interested in Johnson’s study because of the young age of the population Johnson will be testing.

Litten said the average age of people who participate in NIAAA clinical trials is about 40, despite the fact that the average age of the onset of alcohol dependence is 20 to 21. According to Litten, high risk drinking behavior — which he defines as drinking more then five drinks in one night for men and drinking more then three drinks for women — can lead to longer term effects in this younger age group including dependency.

“If he finds this [drug] is effective, you could treat people as they develop [dependence] at an earlier age, rather than let it progress,” Litten said, adding that currently, most people take at least eight years to seek treatment for alcohol abuse.

“This could prevent long-term effects much better than letting [abuse] go on for years and years,” he said.

An earlier study conducted by Johnson concluded that ondansetron is not very effective in treating later-onset alcohol abuse, Litten said, but also found the drug is more effective for cases of early onset alcohol abuse, making it an “ideal drug to test on this population.”

The study also will focus on the effect of genetics on treatment response, Johnson said.

“If a person has a certain genetic profile, he or she may respond better to the drug ... and have fewer side effects,” Litten said, expanding upon the genetic aspect of the study. “It would be nice, before you give someone a drug, to know if they have a chance to respond to it.”

If his hypothesis is confirmed, Johnson said doctors could be able to offer medication targeted toward binge-drinking students for the first time.