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The Bottle Battle: Researchers Test Treatment for Alcoholics Who Began Drinking at an Early Age

Aired August 23, 2000 - 1:37 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Alcoholics who try and kick the habit are often battling longtime addictions. Now researchers think they may have discovered a treatment specifically for alcoholics who began drinking at an early age.

CNN medical correspondent Holly Firfer has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOLLY FIRFER, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Francisco Gomez says a 1995 DWI conviction was his wakeup call.

FRANCISCO GOMEZ, STUDY PARTICIPANT: I could have killed or injured somebody else. At that point is when I decided that I needed help.

FIRFER: An alcoholic since the age of 15, he tried to fight his 23-year addiction.

GOMEZ: Instead of drinking to the point of blacking out, I only drank 12 beers a day.

FIRFER: But it wasn't until he joined a study at the University of Texas Health Science Center, to reduce alcohol cravings, that he found success. Francisco hasn't had a drink for nearly a year.

The study focused on Ondansetron, a drug used to combat side effects of chemotherapy. The drug was given to researchers by the manufacturer for this study to see if it diminished cravings for alcohol for those with early onset alcoholism, or those who have a biological predisposition to begin drinking before the age of 25.

The researchers say it worked.

DR. BANKOLE JOHNSON, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS: There is probably a specific type of abnormality in the seratonin system, which is corrected by Ondansetron.

FIRFER: Low seratonin levels cause us to make extra receptors, which move seratonin through the brain. But because of the low seratonin, they sit idle. That confuses the body, so it quits making seratonin altogether. To make matters worse, low seratonin levels increase dopamine levels. Dopamine is what gives the body a kick, a rush from the alcohol, causing cravings.

Researchers believe the Ondansetron blocks the extra, idle receptors, so the body will continue to make seratonin, which keeps dopamine levels and alcohol cravings down.

JOHNSON: Biologically, predisposed alcoholics tend to have cycles of lapsing back into alcoholism and relapsing.

FIRFER: Doctors say, patients can take the drug as often as they need to to diminish the cravings. It also can be used while a person is drinking, so there is no need to go cold turkey and risk falling off the wagon.

(on camera): Doctors say, it's important that alcoholics also change their behavior through therapy, in order to avoid any situation that might threaten sobriety in conjunction with taking the drug.

Holly Firfer, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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