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A study of compulsive drinking habits in rats could one day lead to a treatment for similar behavior in humans, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. The treatment would only be effective if a person wanted to stop drinking, they say.

The scientists were able to reduce compulsive drinking in rats by blocking a receptor called NMDAR that is found in parts of the brain that control decision-making and feelings of conflict, according to U.S. News & World Report. Compulsive drinking occurs when a person continues to drink despite experiencing negative consequences. For the rats, the negative consequence was the bitter taste of the alcohol, which was mixed with quinine.

The scientists noticed that as the rats consumed the alcohol, there was an increase in NMDAR in the areas of the brain that in humans control decision-making and feelings of self-awareness. The rats were then injected with an agent that blocks NMDAR, and their compulsive drinking was significantly reduced.

A drug that blocks NMDAR would only work in humans if they want to change their drinking behavior, according to senior investigator F. Woodward Hopf. It would need to be used in conjunction with cognitive therapy, to keep patients engaged in therapy, he said. “You have to want to change, and you have to care in that moment, or the drug has nothing to work on,” he noted.

He said there are already several medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration that target NMDAR.

The findings appear in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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