Topiramate (Topamax), a drug approved for epilepsy and migraine, has shown
promise in treating alcohol dependence in a randomized, double-blind study
published in the October 10 Journal of the American Medical Association
Adult patients who met DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence were
enrolled in the study; those with psychiatric comorbidities (except alcohol,
nicotine, or caffeine dependence) or recent substance abuse history were
excluded. Half of the participants received topiramate and half received
placebo for 14 weeks. All participants received a weekly brief behavioral
treatment, delivered in about 15 minutes by trained personnel. The
intervention provided motivational support and tools for adhering to
medication treatment. A few participants attended Alcoholics Anonymous
meetings during the study.
At the end of week 14, self-reported heavy-drinking days dropped from about
82 percent to 44 percent in the topiramate group and from 82 percent to 52
percent in the placebo group. The reduction was significantly higher in the
topiramate group than in the placebo group, regardless of whether dropout
patients were included in the calculation. The statistical significance
between the two groups was achieved at week 4 and persisted through the end of
The self-reported drinking reduction was corroborated by the participants'
plasma γ-glutamyltransferase, a liver enzyme indicating recent drinking,
which also showed statistically significant difference between the topiramate
and placebo groups. The rates of achieving at least 28 days of no heavy
drinking or continuous abstinence were also statistically significantly higher
in the topiramate group.
The dosage of topiramate tested in this study was 50 mg/day to 300 mg/day
titrated over a six-week period. The mechanism of topiramate's effect may
involve a range of activities on the GABA and glutamate receptors, the authors
Study participants in the topiramate group experienced more adverse effects
than did the placebo group. The most commonly reported side effects that were
significantly different between the treatment groups included tingling or
numbing sensation in the skin (50.8 percent in the topiramate group versus
10.6 percent in the placebo group), change in taste (23 percent versus 4.8
percent), loss of appetite (19.7 percent versus 6.9 percent), and difficulty
concentrating or paying attention (14.8 percent versus 3.2 percent).
Of note, 67 participants dropped out of the topiramate group before study
completion; 34 did so because of adverse events. In the placebo group, 41
dropped out, including six because of adverse events. The authors recommended
a slower titration over eight weeks, an approach that, in a study published in
the May 17, 2003, The Lancet, achieved a participant retention rate
similar to placebo.
The study was funded by Ortho-McNeil Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson and
Johnson. Ortho-McNeil Neurologics, also under Johnson and Johnson,
"Our study shows that topiramate helped patients with alcohol
dependence get better even during times of heavy drinking," Bankole
Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the
University of Virginia and the lead author of the study, told Psychiatric
News. "And it shows that a brief, simple, 15-minute behavioral
intervention can be effective. It is easy to provide this intervention in the
primary care setting by doctors or nurses, which will increase patients'
access to the treatment they need for alcohol dependence." Johnson is a
member of the APA Council on Addiction Psychiatry.
The brief intervention manual used in the study can be obtained from
Johnson or found in Handbook of Clinical Alcoholism Treatment, of
which Johnson is a co-author.
Currently, oral and injectable naltrexone and acamprosate are approved
pharmacological treatments for alcohol dependence in addition to the old drug
"While topiramate is not currently approved for the treatment of
alcohol dependence, this is an important study to show the drug's potential
effect in decreasing alcohol use in persons with alcohol dependence,"
said Eric Strain, M.D., professor and section head of JHB Psychiatry Substance
Abuse Programs at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and chair of
APA's Council on Addiction Psychiatry. He emphasized that available
pharmacotherapy is effective for treating patients with alcohol dependence and
deserves a place in the treatment plan.
"Psychiatrists should be familiar with these approved medications and
knowledgeable about new medications that may soon become available to help
patients with alcohol-use disorders."
An abstract of "Topiramate for Treating Alcohol
Dependence" is posted at<jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/298/14/1641>.
An abstract of "Oral Topiramate for Treatment of Alcohol Dependence: A
Randomised Controlled Trial" is posted at<www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673603133703/abstract>.▪