A drug used to treat epilepsy could be an effective future treatment for alcohol dependence, research suggests.
Alcohol dependence is a common problem
US researchers found that heavy drinkers given the drug topiramate alongside standard behavioural therapy reduced their alcohol consumption.
In total 150 heavy drinkers took part in the study. Heavy drinking was defined as five drinks per day for men, and four for women.
All the volunteers received behaviour therapy for three months, but some were given topiramate, and others a dummy drug.
People given topiramate were drinking around three fewer drinks per day than those in the placebo group three months after the treatment came to and end.
Topiramate is a new weapon in our armamentarium for treating alcohol dependence
Professor Bankole Johnson
Topiramate therapy resulted in around a quarter fewer heavy drinking days and a quarter more abstinence days compared with those given placebo.
The scientists also measured levels of an enzyme in the blood which is produced by high alcohol consumption.
Levels were substantially reduced for people given topiramate.
Lead researcher Professor Bankole Johnson, from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said: "Topiramate is a new weapon in our armamentarium for treating alcohol dependence.
"Our knowledge on the basic science underpinnings of alcoholism is improved, and this should bring about hope for the identification of even more efficacious medications in the future."
Dr Jonathan Chick, of the Alcohol Problem Service at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, told BBC News Online that a number of other drugs were also being tested which had produced similar effects.
"Topiramate is known to work in one of the chemical systems in the brain which has, in previous research in humans and animals, been shown to be abnormal in alcohol dependence.
"Several other drugs are also being tested, but none works for everybody. This is probably because alcohol dependence has a variety of different underlying chemical bases, so we need to have a range of different medications with which to treat it."
Dr Ivan Diamond, professor of neurology at University of California San Francisco, told BBC News Online the research was significant.
He said: "I believe we can look forward to a time when physicians will be able
to treat patients with rationally designed drugs targeted to
molecules in the brain that control the development of alcoholism."
The research is published in The Lancet.