How effective is this ‘wonder drug’ for alcohol use disorders?

Is baclofen effective for alcohol use disorders © Daniel Novta
© Daniel Novta

A new study by researchers from the University of Liverpool has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of a so-called ‘wonder drug’ used to treat alcohol use disorders.

Baclofen has been in regular use since the 1970s, and has recently been used to treat alcohol use disorders. It is largely excreted through the kidneys, and can therefore be tolerated by patients suffering alcohol-related liver disease, who often cannot tolerate licensed drug treatments.

Previous research has found baclofen to be successful in treating alcohol use disorders, but the mechanism of how or why baclofen works is not fully understood, and several possibilities have been raised, including:

  • Baclofen may reduce the patient’s craving for alcohol;
  • It may reduce negative mood states, such as anxiety or depression; or
  • It may limit other risk factors for harmful drinking.

The researchers from the University of Liverpool’s addiction research team set out to compare baclofen to placebos by conducting a meta-analysis all 12 of the clinical trials which have been undertaken in this area.

What did the new research show?

Through their meta-analysis, the researchers found that while baclofen led to higher abstinent rates compared to the placebo, its use did not have any observable impact on craving for alcohol, the mental state of the patients, or other outcomes. In fact, baclofen had no effect on:

  • Number of abstinent days;
  • Number of heavy drinking days during treatment;
  • Rates of alcohol craving; or
  • Anxiety or depression in patients.

Dr Abi Rose, one of the researchers involved in the study, warned that the results of the meta-analysis indicate that more research is needed to establish how effective baclofen is as a treatment for alcohol use disorders.

She said: “Our research highlights several issues with the existing body of trials. Many of the studies only recruited a limited number of patients, so maybe too small to find an effect. The existing trials also differ on a number of factors, such as the dose of baclofen given and the length of treatment.”

Rose added that the pharmacokinetics of baclofen – in other words, how it moves around the body – are not well-understood, and so further investigation of additional factors will also be necessary.

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