Giving up alcohol isn’t the hardest part of overcoming alcoholism — the subsequent cravings are what lead most to relapse. A new study from UCLA may have a way to better address these cravings. According to the research, a drug commonly used in Japan to treat asthma also has the unexpected side effect of quelling a desire for alcohol by reducing the pleasurable effects of drinking. The findings could one day make the drug a candidate for use in alcohol abuse treatments.

According to a study now published online in Neuropsychopharmacology, the drug ibudilast significantly lowers user’s cravings for alcohol and helps to improve their mood when confronted with alcohol which they are not allowed to drink. In addition, the drug seems to alleviate user’s depression, a condition very common in heavy drinkers.

Read: Alcoholism Is A Disease: CDC Finds 90% Of Heavy Drinkers Are Not Alcoholics

"We found that ibudilast is safe and well-tolerated," said study lead author Lara Ray, a UCLA professor of psychology, in a recent statement. "This medication can be safely administered, including when people are drinking alcohol."

For the study, the team had 17 men and women who reported drinking an average of 21 days of the month and an average of seven alcoholic beverages per day. Study participants were given either the drug or a placebo for six consecutive days. After about a two-week break, those who took the drug were switched to a placebo for six days, and those who were taking the placebo were given ibudilast. In addition, the participants' reactions were measured after they were asked to hold and smell a glass of their preferred alcoholic beverage but not allowed to drink it.

Time and again, participants who were given ibudilast repeatedly reported fewer cravings and better overall attitudes towards their abstinence. The drug is already commonly used to treat asthma, but to test the drug’s tolerance as an abstinence treatment the participants were intravenously injected with the equivalent of four drinks to see how well the drug was tolerated with alcohol in the system. The drug was well tolerated with no adverse side effects.

Although ibudilast is not yet approved for alcoholism treatment, the team hope that further clinical testing will result in this eventual goal. At the moment, there are only a handful of drugs approved to help in the treatment of alcoholism, These drugs work in different ways and results vary. For example, according to WebMD, Antabuse works by interfering with the body's ability to absorb alcohol by inhibiting production of an enzyme that would otherwise allow the body to absorb an alcohol breakdown product called acetaldehyde. On the other hand,  Naltrexone helps to reduce cravings by compromising the pleasure derived from drinking — similar to ibudilast.

Source: Ray LA, Bujarski S, Shoptaw S, Roche DJO, Heinzerling K, Miotto K. Development of the Neuroimmune Modulator Ibudilast for the Treatment of Alcoholism: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Human Laboratory Trial. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017

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