Review Article

From the Neurobiologic Basis of Alcohol Dependency to Pharmacologic Treatment Strategies: Bridging the Knowledge Gap

Authors: Christopher W. Shea, MA, CRAT, CAC-AD


Alcohol dependence (AD) is a complex disease involving biologic, psychosocial, and environmental factors. Increasing evidence shows that the development of AD involves changes in neurotransmitter function in the areas of the brain associated with alcohol craving and reward. Although AD is gaining acceptance as a medical disease, management of AD rarely includes medical treatment. Pharmacotherapy is a useful adjunct to psychosocial therapy and can target the biologic changes associated with AD. Similar to the role of medications in depression, pharmacotherapy can improve the response to psychosocial therapy and should thus be initiated early in the course of treatment. By reducing cravings and alcohol-associated rewards, pharmacotherapy can reduce heavy drinking days, increase abstinence, and help patients focus on their treatment goals. Pharmacotherapy represents a valuable component of treatment and should be combined with psychosocial and behavioral interventions to address the multifactorial nature of AD in individuals with this disease.

Key Points

* Alcohol dependency is a disease, but treatment traditionally has focused almost exclusively on psychosocial intervention.

* Recent studies indicate alcohol abuse has a neurobiologic component that can be managed effectively with appropriate pharmacotherapy.

* Pharmacologic treatment, used in conjunction with psychosocial approaches, is an important part of an effective treatment plan for alcohol dependency.

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