New research supported by NIAAA suggests that a drug currently used to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs could someday help lessen the alcohol cravings that often lead to relapse among people with drinking problems. Alcohol-related memories, or cues—such as the smell of alcohol—can trigger cue-induced alcohol craving. Previous research has found that the mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1), a group of proteins found in cells throughout the body, is involved in memory processes in the brain, and also plays an important role in alcohol-seeking behavior. In a study published online in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the University of California San Francisco examined whether inhibiting mTORC1 could disrupt memories of alcohol cues—and thus diminish alcohol relapses in rats that had been trained to binge drink. After a period of alcohol abstinence, researchers exposed the rats to a small amount of alcohol to provide an odor and taste cue to the animals. The researchers then administered a dose of rapamycin, an mTORC1 inhibitor. Compared with a control group that did not receive rapamycin, rats that received the rapamycin sought and consumed less alcohol for the duration of the experiment. Researchers found that by disrupting memories of alcohol cues, rats were less likely to relapse to drinking than those whose memories were intact.

The researchers note memory disruption has shown success in humans who are addicted to heroin and suggest that it may prove helpful in developing new relapse-prevention strategies in alcoholics as well.