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Researchers find new drugs that may treat depression in alcoholics

A study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, has uncovered some encouraging results for individuals who are coping with both depression and alcoholism. This research may set the stage for new treatment methods and therapies for people living with these two disorders.

The results of this study were published in February in the journal, Neuropsychopharmacaology.

The study

People who have co-occurring depression and alcoholism often find it difficult to maintain sobriety due to their depression, or difficult to recover from their depression due to their alcoholism. Currently, very few clinical studies have focused on treating depression in people with alcoholism. Unfortunately, traditional depression treatments such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often ineffective in this patient population.

The research team, led by Katherine M. Holleran, a graduate student in the Vanderbilt neuroscience graduate program, hoped to identify a medication that could substantially reduce depressive symptoms in alcoholics.

The researchers looked at a group of mice that were experiencing depression-like behavior in response to alcohol withdrawal. They provided these mice with ketamine, an anesthetic drug that blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the brain and can result in long-lasting antidepressant effects in humans.

Once the mice were given this drug, they experienced a relief in their depressive symptoms.

The researchers also found that giving the mice a monoacylglycerol (MAG) lipase inhibitor reduced their depression symptoms. This MAG lipase inhibitor has been found to increase the body’s natural levels of 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), an endocannabinoid. Endocannabinoids have been previously associated with anxiety and depression.

What does this mean?

According to the study, both ketamine and MAG lipase inhibitor reduce depressive symptoms in mice struggling with alcohol withdrawal. However, Danny Winder, Ph.D., the senior author of this study and a professor of molecular physiology and biophysics, and of psychiatry, at Vanderbilt, cautions that “much work needs to be done” before these results can be applied to humans with alcoholism.

And more work is on its way. The research team hopes to further investigate how these drugs are able to reduce depressive symptoms in mice. Hopefully, with enough research, these methods will soon make their way into human research.

“We are excited to pursue the role of the endocannabinoid system further,” Winder said.

The Sovereign Health of Texas dual diagnosis treatment program is clinically based and treats co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions simultaneously. Our clinicians utilize a systematic program to care for each condition with equal and concurrent treatments to make full recovery possible. We pride ourselves on staying up to date on research that can help our patients achieve sobriety and mental well-being. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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