The epilepsy drug Topamax has been shown to help problem drinkers limit their daily alcohol consumption. Good news for alcoholics, scientists say. But from the perspective of public health, the findings may have even broader implications.

Dr. Henry Kranzler, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction and lead author of the new study, said in a press release that the findings may represent the first evidence that problem drinkers may benefit from topiramate — an anticonvulsant sold as Topamax. "Our study is the first we are aware of in which topiramate was evaluated as an option for patients who want to limit their drinking to safe levels, rather than stop drinking altogether," he explained.

Kranzler’s study, which is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, surveyed 138 heavy drinkers over 12 weeks. Half of them were given Topamax at a maximum dose of 200 milligrams, and the rest were given placebo pills. At the end of the trial, participants in the placebo group were five times more likely to have had a day of heavy drinking compared to those who took the anticonvulsant. "Our hope is that the study will result in additional research focusing to help patients who have struggled with heavy drinking and the problems it causes, but who are unable or unwilling to abstain from alcohol altogether.”

But Wait — There’s More

Though a breakthrough in its own right, this newfound benefit of Topomax also adds to a growing number of discoveries that seem to herald a change in the way we consume alcohol. Last year, for example, Dr. David Nutt — a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London — told reporters that both alcohol and hangovers could soon be a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean people won’t get drunk anymore.

"We know that the main target for alcohol in the brain is the neurotransmitter system gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) which keeps the brain calm," Nutt explained. "Alcohol therefore relaxes users through mimicking and increasing the GABA function. But we also know that there are a range of GABA subsystems that can be targeted by selective drugs.”

The idea seems simple: a booze substitute that’s all fun and no pain. But while Nutt claims to be close to a finished product, there’s no telling how long we’ll have to wait. So far, he’s the only one who’s tried the pill.

Still, Nutt and Kranzler’s work raises the question: Is alcohol on its way out?

Source: Kranzler HR, Covault J, Feinn R, Armeli S et al. Topiramate Treatment for Heavy Drinkers: Moderation by a GRIK1 Polymorphism. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2014.