Targeted Opioid Receptor Antagonists in the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorders

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Abstract

In 1994, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the μ-opioid receptor antagonist naltrexone to treat alcohol dependence. However, treatments requiring daily administration, such as naltrexone, are inconsistently adhered to in substance abusing populations, and constant medication exposure can increase risk of adverse outcomes, e.g., hepatotoxicity. This has fostered a ‘targeted’ or ‘as needed’ approach to opioid receptor antagonist treatment, in which medications are used only in anticipation of or during high-risk situations, including times of intense cravings. Initial studies of the ability of targeted naltrexone to reduce drinking-related outcomes were conducted in problem drinkers and have been extended into larger, multi-site, placebo-controlled investigations with positive results. Another μ-opioid receptor antagonist, nalmefene, has been studied on an ‘as-needed’ basis to reduce heavy drinking in alcohol-dependent individuals. These studies include three large multi-site trials in Europe of up to 1 year in duration, and serve as the basis for the recent approval of nalmefene by the European Medicines Agency as an ‘as-needed’ adjunctive treatment for alcohol dependence. We review potential moderators of opioid receptor antagonist treatment response including subjective assessments, objective clinical measures and genetic variants. In sum, the targeted or ‘as-needed’ approach to treatment with opioid antagonists is an efficacious harmreduction strategy for problem drinking and alcohol dependence.

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