The researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy, Gothenburg, have observed that blocking ghrelin's actions in the brain can reduce alcohol's effects on the reward system.
Ghrelin is a hormone produced by the stomach and, by signalling in the brain, it increases hunger.
Its involvement in alcohol addiction highlights the reward system of the brain as a key target for ghrelin's effects.
"Ghrelin's actions in the brain may be of importance for all kinds of addictions, including chemical drugs such as alcohol and even food," said Suzanne Dickson, Professor of Physiology, a leading expert in appetite regulation.
The researchers showed that mice treated with ghrelin increase their alcohol consumption.
When ghrelin's actions are blocked, for example, by administering ghrelin receptor antagonists, mice no longer show preference for an alcohol-associated environment.
This means that alcohol is no longer able to produce its addictive effects that include reward-searching behaviour (similar to craving in alcoholic patients).
"If we can develop drugs that block the receptors for ghrelin, we could have a new effective treatment for alcohol dependence. It may however take several years until such a pharmacological treatment will reach the patient", said a co-author of the study.
Alcohol dependence is a complex and chronic disease that leads to adverse consequences affecting not only the patient but also their immediate family, and it also has a profound economic burden on society.
The results of the study will be published in the renowned American scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).