The Food and Drug Administration approved naltrexone for the treatment of alcoholism in 1994. At that time, the only other drug therapy available was disulfiram, or Antabuse, which provokes a sickening reaction to alcohol. A new study casts sobering doubts on earlier claims that an alcoholism drug can truly treat the addiction.
The government is sponsoring a large trial comparing naltrexone, which is also used to treat heroin addiction, with another alcoholism drug, acamprosate. Both medications act on the brain's opioid receptors to make drinking less pleasurable.
Earlier studies, including the work that led to its FDA approval, showed that when combined with counseling naltrexone could help control alcoholism by reducing drinking days and increasing days without liquor. The drug was also shown to suppress cravings and prevent relapses. In fact, the latest study was intended to learn not whether the drug was effective, which was assumed, but for how long.
The study says naltrexone fails to prevent drinking relapses, and in fact is no better than sugar pills at keeping hardened alcoholics on the wagon.