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Clinical Neuroscience of Addiction: Similarities and Differences between Alcohol and Other Drugs

Author(s): Karoly HC, YorkWilliams SL, Hutchison KE

Abstract

Background: Existing pharmacological treatments for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and other substance use disorders (SUDs) have demonstrated only modest efficacy. Although the field has recently emphasized testing and developing new compounds to treat SUDs, there are numerous challenges inherent to the development of novel medications, and this is particularly true for SUDs. Thus, research to date has tended toward the "repurposing" approach, in which medications developed to treat other mental or physical conditions are tested as SUD treatments. Often, potential treatments are examined across numerous drugs of abuse. Several repurposed medications have shown promise in treating a specific SUD, but few have shown efficacy across multiple SUDs. Examining similarities and differences between AUD and other SUDs may shed light on these findings and offer directions for future research.

Methods: This qualitative review discusses similarities and differences in neural circuitry and molecular mechanism(s) across alcohol and other substances of abuse, and examines studies of pharmacotherapies for AUD and other SUDs.

Results: Substances of abuse share numerous molecular targets and involve much of the same neural circuitry, yet compounds tested because they putatively target common mechanisms have rarely indicated therapeutic promise for multiple SUDs.

Conclusions: The lack of treatment efficacy across SUDs may be partially explained by limitations inherent in studying substance users, who comprise a highly heterogeneous population. Alternatively, medications may fail to show efficacy across multiple SUDs due to the fact that the differences between drug mechanisms are more important than their commonalities in terms of influencing treatment response. We suggest that exploring these differences could support novel treatment development, aid in identifying existing medications that may hold promise as treatments for specific SUDs, and ultimately advance translational research efforts.

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