Discovery by UT scientists could help treat alcohol use withdrawals


A team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin says they’ve discovered a compound that has been shown to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings in worms and rats. They believe this compound and the nervous system pathway it works on may hold more tools for treating alcohol use disorders in humans. 

The compound, stored in the form of an oil in a refrigerator, was first shown to be effective at curbing withdrawal symptoms in worms at the lab of Jonathan Pierce in the UT Department of Neuroscience.

After that, the scientists partnered with Valentina Sabino at Boston University and found the compound also worked in keeping down excessive alcohol drinking and withdrawal symptoms in rats. 

“The worms are exposed to alcohol and you could certainly call them drunk, the rats are exposed to alcohol and then start preferring it after a length of exposure,” explained James Sahn, a research associate in the UT Department of Chemistry who led this research along with Professor Stephen F. Martin.  

The two focused on this area of study because many medications on the market to help with alcohol withdrawals have negative physical side effects including liver failure and cognitive impairment. They say these side effects deter people in recovery from sticking to this medication. 

“One of our goals is to create a drug that doesn’t have these side effects or has fewer side effects,” Martin said. 

“A new drug like that would be a game changer in the Alcohol Use Disorder community,” Sahn said. 

They call their compound JVW-1034 after James Virgil Waggoner, whom UT’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol Addiction and Research is named. Martin explained that Waggoner’s son suffered from alcohol addiction as well and died at a young age. 

Both Sahn and Martin know people who’ve dealt with alcoholism, Martin said that one of his former undergraduate students later died after battling alcohol abuse for years. Both said it is very rewarding to see their discoveries in the lab hold the potential to help people in clinics. 

They’ve just published their findings in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology and filed for a patent. They hope in the long run they’ll be able to improve on the compound and get it into a consumable form so it can go on the market. 

“So these results are pretty exciting because they show they could be promising for treating people suffering with alcohol use disorder, ” Sahn explained.

They’ve also focused on a particular brain pathway (using the Sigma 2 receptor) in research on compounds that could curb opioid addiction as well. 

Lynn Sherman knows firsthand how difficult it can be to cope with withdrawal symptoms, in his late 40’s he began recovery from alcohol addiction. 

“Everything else becomes secondary, it becomes noise, a buzz and you’re really just focused on the discomfort you feel inside and physical discomfort as well,” he said of withdrawal symptoms. 

For Sherman, it was important to push past cravings for alcohol without medication, but he has worked with many others in recovery who have used the withdrawal medications on the market. 

“Some of the medications they have on the market today invoke physical reactions to the consumption of alcohol [that] can be really brutal and can be hard on the body,” Sherman said. 

Working through the difficulties of the recovery process has given Sherman a life he’s now very proud of.  

“I’m at a higher level than I ever have been in my life,” he said.  

When it comes to science like the work UT faculty are doing on these brain pathways, Sheman is interested to learn more. 

“Anything that can help boost the biological [parts of addiction] provided it is managed correctly and is viewed as a way of getting folks over the hump, I am coming to embrace,” he said. 

Sherman said he supports science like this to help out with the biological element of addiction. He says in the long term, for recovery from addiction to be effective, people need to have social and psychological support too. 

“We have to remember that addiction is a chronic condition, it’s a lifetime, so to really set yourself up for success long term you need to address all three,” Sherman said. 

On the UT campus, addiction and youth addiction are a big focus this month in a Pop-Up Institute being hosted there. Longhorns will be part of discussions all month about how to better support young people on the path to recovery 

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