23 June 1998

AA It With Flowers

How do you persuade a drunken rat to go on the wagon? Well, Wort's worth a try!

St John's Wort produces a vivid yellow flower containing hypericin which is currently used in Europe to treat depression. Experimenting with rats selectively bred to prefer alcohol to water, scientists in the University of North Carolina have discovered that treating them with a hypericin compound turned them away from the booze.

These little ol' wine drinkin' rats were bred to consume little water but a lot of alcohol. Animals treated with the compound then given free access to both fluids over a 24 hour period drank about 50 per cent less alcohol than untreated animals. Similar results were obtained from additional experiments using different strains of rats with the study period extended to 15 days. "We don't know yet whether the compound will work in human alcoholics," said Dr Amir Rezvani in the School of Medicine, "But we're optimistic."

"This is exciting - and simple," said Rezvani, adding "St John's Wort is already the most prescribed antidepressant in Germany, as effective as Prozac and producing fewer side effects". It is this last detail that is so welcome in the research. "One of the major problems with alcoholics is that they don't like to take medications that have side effects. St John's Wort might be different in that it would just reduce their desire for alcohol". Coming from a natural herb, hypericin is expected to have fewer side effects than synthetic drugs.

Rezvani learned about the drug and its properties last year: "I thought that since depression and alcoholism have a strong biological link, if it worked for depression it might just have a beneficial effect on alcoholism as well." The link may be a deficiency in serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. As alcoholism is a complex disease it is unlikely that a small yellow flower will provide the "magic bullet" that will prevent or cure it, but St John's Wort may provide a safe assistance to people motivated to change.

Pic Courtesy Herbal Alternatives