Multiple lines of evidence suggest that the endocannabinoid system is implicated in the development of alcohol dependence. In addition, in animal models, the cannabinoid receptor 1 blocker rimonabant was found to decrease alcohol consumption, possibly by indirect modulation of dopaminergic neurotransmission.
This was a 12-week double-blind, placebo-controlled, proof-of-concept study to assess the possible efficacy of the cannabinoid receptor 1 antagonist rimonabant 20 mg/d (2 × 10 mg) in the prevention of relapse to alcohol in recently detoxified alcohol-dependent patients. A total of 260 patients were included, 258 were exposed to medication, and 208 (80.6%) were men. Patients had an alcohol history of 15 years on average. More patients in the rimonabant group (94/131 [71.8%]) completed treatment compared with the placebo group (79/127 [62.2%]). Although there was a modest effect of rimonabant with respect to relapse rate, there were no statistically significant differences between treatment groups. Approximately 41.5% of the rimonabant group had relapsed to drinking at the end of the study compared with 47.7% of the placebo group (obtained from Kaplan-Meier-curve). Differences were more marked but not statistically significant in patients who relapsed to heavy drinking: 27.7% versus 35.6%, respectively. Safety and tolerance of the drug were good. Similar rates of adverse events were reported between the 2 groups; less patients experienced serious events or discontinued the treatment with rimonabant compared with placebo. Rates of depression-related events were low (3.8% with rimonabant compared with 1.6% with placebo). Patients on rimonabant lost weight (Mean, −1.7 kg) compared with baseline, whereas there was no such change in the placebo group. Weight loss was more pronounced in patients with a higher body mass index. In addition, there was a significant decrease in leptin levels in the rimonabant group compared with baseline.
Lack of efficacy in this study may be explained by a very high response rate in the placebo group and a relatively short treatment duration. Taking the substantial numbers of animal studies suggesting a possible role of CB1 antagonists for the treatment of alcohol dependence into account, it seems worthwhile to further test cannabinoid blockers in the treatment of alcoholism.