Alcoholics are highly likely to suffer from chronic insomnia that keeps them from getting enough night sleep, and the condition reduces of recovering from alcohol dependence.
The researchers have found that epilepsy drug, gabapentin, can reduce insomnia in recovering alcoholics, and help them stay away from alcohol more successfully.
The team conducted a randomised, placebo-controlled trial on 21 insomniacs, and found that 30 percent of the patients who received gabapentin during alcohol recovery relapsed to drinking, compared with 80 percent of those who received a placebo.
"We showed that the patients who got the real drug, rather than placebo, were less likely to relapse to drinking -- or if they relapsed it was later," said lead author Dr Kirk Brower, FASAM, the executive director of U-M Addiction Treatment Services and a professor of psychiatry at the U-M Medical School.
"In other words, gabapentin prevented and delayed relapse. Meanwhile, patients reported sleeping better in both the treatment and placebo groups, which may be due to the gabapentin in the first group and the resumption of drinking in the other," he added.
Co-author Dr. Flavia Consens, an associate professor of neurology and member of the U-M Sleep Disorders Centre said that as many as 70 percent of people with alcohol problems suffer insomnia, while others cope with other sleep disturbances including breathing problems known as sleep apnea.
"There may be some underlying chemical changes in the brain that prompt alcoholics to report more insomnia as a co-existing condition than non-alcoholics," she said.
"A possible explanation of these new findings is that the gabapentin might decrease the insomnia initially, and the patient may not need or crave alcohol as a treatment for the insomnia.
"We're also looking into other factors that may have an effect on the neurochemistry of the brain, and see how they could impact recovery and sleep," she added.
Brower notes that the medication dose and schedule used in the study may have contributed to the relatively weak effect on sleep that was seen from gabapentin.
Patients took one dose each evening, rather than the three doses throughout the day that are routinely given for epilepsy or pain.
The study is published in the August issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.