APR 19, 2022 9:00 AM PDT

Repurposing an Alcoholism Drug to Treat Anxiety

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly a third of adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. To make matters more grim, new recommendations from a U.S. federal task force suggest that children as young as eight should be screened for anxiety disorders, highlighting anxiety’s growing prevalence in society. 

When it comes to treating anxiety, psychiatrists often use a range of behavioral therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) or medication, depending on severity. The most common anxiety medications (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs]), however, have several limitations. Specifically, research suggests that these medications can produce a range of unpleasant side effects. 

New research published in Frontiers in Pharmacology suggests that an existing drug used to treat alcoholism could be repurposed to treat anxiety disorders. 

The drug in question, disulfiram (DSF), is currently FDA-approved for the treatment of alcoholism. Specifically, DSF targets the production of an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (DSH), which plays a key role in metabolizing alcohol in the body. 

Researchers were curious whether the effects of DSF could play a role in influencing communication in the brain and the direction of molecules used to send signals. Specifically, researchers were drawing on research that suggests DSF also blocks a protein from interacting with CCR2 and CCR5, two receptors that play a crucial role in cellular communication and the management of emotions and behaviors.

To explore these theories, researchers studied the effects of DSF in mice. Some mice were given DSF, while others were given diazepam, a common anxiety medication. The mice were then placed into an elevated plus-maze (EPM) structure to test the effects of the medications (EPM structures are commonly used in mice studies to test the effects of anxiety medications because anxious mice tend to occupy certain areas of the structure).

The research team noted that the mice treated with either medication behaved similarly to each other, suggesting that DSF has similar anti-anxiety effects to diazepam. There were also no significant side effects in mice who took DSF, a welcome change compared to existing anxiety medications. 

Sources: Science Daily; NIH; New York Times; Frontiers in Pharmacology

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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