There’s new evidence today that alcoholism is a disease, and at Virginia Commonwealth University, one professor of medicine says treatment could involve a transplant.
Based on studies in laboratory mice, Dr. Jasmohan Bajaj thought alcoholism might be linked to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
"Our gut is a beautiful rainforest – an ecosystem," he explains. "There are so many bugs vying with each other, basically communicating with each other and ultimately contributing to overall gut health."
But when some people drink alcohol, it takes a toll on those bacteria.
"It basically squashes down that huge diversity that is found in the ecosystem," Bajaj says. "It kind of gets reduced to a desert."
And, he adds, the bacteria that remain may secrete substances damaging to the body.
"When they are exposed to alcohol, they are likely to produce things that are going to harm you. They may actually even drive the preference for alcohol."
Bajaj tested his theory on ten people with alcoholism– implanting a whole new community of bacteria into their guts and comparing them to ten similar patients who got a placebo. The results were dramatic.
"What we found is in the first 15 days that patients who were given the fecal transplant had a reduction in their craving for alcohol. Not only did they have a reduction in their craving, there was a tendency for them to actually consume less alcohol."
They also reported feeling better and thinking more clearly. After six months, seven of ten people in the placebo group showed up at hospitals or emergency rooms with alcohol-related problems. That was the case for only one person in the transplant group. What’s more three of the ten with transplanted bacteria had given up drinking completely. Dr. Bajaj says he’s now planning a much larger study to learn more about how the transfer of gastrointestinal bacteria might help people who are addicted to alcohol.