Preventing Alcoholic Relapse
Alcohol has been part of human society of thousands of years at this point. It has been celebrated as a gift from the gods, as a vital part of intercultural and international trade, and more. However, throughout that time, humans have had an uneasy relationship with alcohol. While many people are able to enjoy drinking on a social basis, for others, it becomes a problem resulting in alcoholism.
The Incidence of Alcoholism
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as of 2015, 56% of the US population reported consuming alcohol within the preceding month. However, almost 27% of those 18 or older reported binge drinking within a month of the survey, and 7% reporting they engaged in heavy use of alcohol in the preceding month. The NIAAA also reported that as of 2015, 15.1 million American adults suffered with an alcohol use disorder, or AUD. What’s more, 623,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 struggled with an AUD. An AUD is defined as uncontrollable use of alcohol, including alcoholism.
How Is Alcoholism Treated?
Current treatment options for those struggling with alcohol addiction include counseling and therapy, as well as detoxification programs to help alcoholics reduce and eliminate alcohol from their lives. There are some medications available that are designed to reduce the desire to consume alcohol, although these vary in terms of effectiveness.
The challenge here is that while treatment can help, there is no cure. Many alcoholics successfully complete detoxification and counseling, only to relapse later, much in the same way that those addicted to other drugs can relapse.
What Is Alcoholic Relapse?
Alcoholic relapse is exactly what it sounds like – a sudden return to drinking alcohol after a period of sobriety. Often, relapses are marked by consuming large quantities of alcohol and serious, even dangerous levels of intoxication. This is due to the alcoholic’s body’s reduced tolerance to alcohol. Anyone can relapse, at any point in their lives. There is no grace period for being sober for a long time. An alcoholic who has been sober for 25 years has as great a chance of relapse as an alcoholic who has been sober for 90 days.
Why Does Alcoholic Relapse Occur?
Relapse occurs because the disease is never truly cured. It has to do with brain chemistry. Drinking releases dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and reward. Over time, this pattern rewires the brain’s pathways. Eventually, according to US News and World Report,
"This can affect alcoholics and addicts to the point their brains re-prioritize what’s important, such as eating and survival."
Current Treatment Options for Alcoholism
Currently, there are limited treatment options for alcoholism, or any other form of addiction, for that matter. First, alcoholics will need to complete a detoxification program. This may need to be done in conjunction with medication in serious cases, as withdrawals can be fatal. Once the detoxification if complete, the alcoholic will need to complete counseling/therapy, and will usually need to join a support group in which they will participate for the rest of their lives. A 12-step program is the most common. Recovering alcoholics (never cured) must also remain vigilant for stressors and things that make a relapse more likely. Many learn to watch their “HALT”, an acronym that stands for hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. These emotional states make a relapse more likely.
How Might Stem Cells Help Prevent Alcoholic Relapse?
While there is no cure, there is hope. It comes in the form of novel approaches to treading alcoholism with human stem cells. Numerous studies have been conducted on rats using stem cells that have shown they are able to inhibit relapse-like alcohol drinking in test animals. In one particular study, published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism in 2016, relapse-like drinking was blocked by mesenchymal stem cells.
"High alcohol-intake bred rates consumed alcohol for three months and were subjected to repeated alcohol deprivations for 7 to 14 days, followed by alcohol re-access. A single intra-cerebroventricular MSC administration inhibited relapse-like drinking up to 80-85% for 40 days. An alcohol-use-disorder was prevented."
Of course, these trials are only in their preliminary phases, and there are not human trials involving stem cell treatment for alcoholism currently in progress. However, that will likely change over time. Injecting stem cells into the brain is not very practical and better ways of treatment must be discovered.
Stem Cell Types
It should be noted that the stem cells used in the aforementioned trial were autologous, meaning they were harvested from the rats’ own bodies (bone marrow in this instance). Autologous stem cells do have value, but they are not as effective as allogeneic stem cells, or those harvested from umbilical cord blood and tissue.
The reason for this is that autologous stem cells are the same age as the donor, and will have numerous mutations. Those mutations can actually cause the donor’s own immune system to reject the stem cells. Allogeneic stem cells are immune-naïve, meaning that the immune system does not even recognize them. Plus, because they are young, they are highly active and free of mutations.
The Future of Stem Cell Therapy for Preventing Alcoholic Relapse
Alcoholism affects millions of Americans and their family and friends each year. While there is as yet no stem cell-based treatment method for humans, the future looks bright. It is also important to remember that there are currently no FDA-approved stem cell treatments for human beings, and any such options are strictly experimental. For those considering the use of allogeneic mesenchymal stem cells to treat alcoholism or any other condition, it is important to choose your physician with care. Not only should your medical professional be on the cutting-edge of stem cell therapy, but they must clearly understand that medical treatment, stem cells including, would not produce desirable results without psychological treatment.