Boston — The dangerous and disorienting symptoms alcoholics experience when they stop drinking are lessened by a drug that blocks certain chemical cues to the brain, medical researchers reported today.

The drug atenolol dramatically checked the cardiovascular effects of alcohol withdrawal, such as high pulse rate and blood pressure, with no apparent side effects, they said.

Atenolol, a drug known as a beta blocker, was tested on 61 patients undergoing alcohol withdrawal at a community hospital detoxification clinic. Another 59 patients received a dummy medication.

Beta blockers have been used for years to treat high blood pressure and chest pain from clogged coronary arteries and more recently have been used to prevent repeat heart attacks. The heart responds to the drugs by slowing its beat and reducing the force of its pumping.

The results of the study on alcohol withdrawal were published in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine and St. Mary’s

Hospital in Waterbury, Conn. When alcoholics stop drinking they often experience withdrawal, much as addicts of other depressant drugs do. Withdrawal symptoms begin six to eight hours after a patient’s blood alcohol level drops significantly.

Early symptoms include increasing blood pressure and pulse rate, tremor, increased irritability and behavioral changes. These symptoms progress over a 24hour period and may advance to include grand mal seizures, hallucinations, and later, delirium tremens (delirium accompanied by constant tremor) in some patients. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of patients who undergo delirium tremens die.

“In contrast to these consistently large and early treatment benefits, the effects on behavioral abnormalities were smaller and occurred later in the course of the alcohol withdrawal syndrome,” reported Dr. Mark L. Kraus of St. Mary’s Hospital and Dr. Ralph I. Horwitz of Yale.

The report cautions that more studies must be conducted before use of the drug is standard procedure.

Only 20 percent of the patients treated were women, because fewer women tend to enter detoxification programs. The patients also tended to have only mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms so that the drug has not been effectively tested on patients with severe withdrawal symptoms.

Article extracted from this publication >>  October 18, 1985