Ghrelin Stimulates an Appetite for Drinking Alcohol

Reports new study in Biological Psychiatry

Philadelphia, PA, October 29, 2014

Ghrelin is a hormone released by the stomach and it stimulates appetite and food intake. Alcohol is commonly viewed as a psychoactive substance that primarily affects brain function, but it is also a highly caloric food.

This knowledge, combined with findings from animal studies, led researchers to the hypothesis that ghrelin has the potential to stimulate alcohol craving.

Dr. Lorenzo Leggio and his colleagues tested this in humans and found that, as they had anticipated, alcohol craving was increased in heavy drinkers following administration of ghrelin. Their work is published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.

"This study provides a direct translation on the role of ghrelin in alcohol-seeking behaviors in humans from previous research conducted in rodents," said Dr. Leggio, Clinical Investigator in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Leggio is also Chief of the Section on Clinical Psychoneuroendo-crinology and Neuropsychopharmacology, in NIAAA's Laboratory of Clinical and Translational Studies.

The study was conducted in the laboratory, where 45 men and women, all of whom were alcohol-dependent, heavy-drinking individuals not seeking treatment, were randomized to receive one of three different doses of ghrelin. One of those doses, at 0 mcg/kg, served as a placebo.

Following intravenous administration of the drug, the volunteers then completed a cue-reactivity task, during which they were exposed to both neutral and alcohol cues. Throughout the laboratory session, their craving (e.g., urge to drink) for alcohol or juice was repeatedly assessed.

Compared to placebo, ghrelin significantly increased alcohol craving, but had no effect on urge to drink juice. There were no differences in reported side effects between those who received placebo versus those who received ghrelin.

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, "This study sheds new light on a role for ghrelin in alcohol craving, raising the possibility that ghrelin signaling might be targeted by future treatments for alcohol use disorders."

Leggio added, "There is a crucial need to identify neurobiological pathways linked to alcohol craving that may help in the development of novel effective medications aimed to reduce excessive alcohol use. In this context, future studies may explore the potential of blocking ghrelin signaling as a new promising treatment for alcoholism."

The article is "Intravenous Ghrelin Administration Increases Alcohol Craving in Alcohol-Dependent Heavy Drinkers: A Preliminary Investigation" by Lorenzo Leggio, William H. Zywiak, Samuel R. Fricchione, Steven M. Edwards, Suzanne M. de la Monte, Robert M. Swift, and George A. Kenna (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.03.019). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 76, Issue 9 (November 1, 2014), published by Elsevier.


Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Lorenzo Leggio at +1 301 435 9398 or

The authors' affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 5th out of 135 Psychiatry titles and 14th out of 251 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2013 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 9.472.

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