UNTHSC research examines new ways to reduce sudden alcohol withdrawal distress

A recent Gallup poll indicates that Americans are drinking more than they have in the last 25 years. As a result, alcoholism continues to be a problem among adults and adolescents, and withdrawal from alcohol continues to cause disruptions as individuals and their families deal with both the physical and emotional trauma of weaning their bodies and minds from the effects of alcohol abuse. New research at the Health Science Center examines the effects of intermittent hypoxia – cycles of a moderately low level versus a normal level of oxygen – on the body’s ability to adjust to alcohol withdrawal.

“When a patient is exposed to intermittent hypoxia over time, the body learns to adapt to the stress of low oxygen,” said Marianna Jung, PhD (’97), assistant professor of Pharmacology and principal investigator for the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health. “By introducing intermittent hypoxia for 20 days and training the brain to deal with stress, we hope to show that the brain can be protected from excessive stress of alcohol withdrawal.”

At the suggestion of Fred Downey, PhD, vice chair of Integrative Physiology, Jung is working with Robert Mallet, PhD, professor of Integrative Physiology, in testing the theory. During the first phase of testing, subjects exposed to intermittent hypoxia prior to experiencing sudden alcohol withdrawal were calmer and suffered less stress than subjects who were not subjected to hypoxia pre-conditioning. Subjects without hypoxia treatment were more hyperactive and more apt to suffer seizures during withdrawal.

The hope is that further evaluation will result in therapies that can improve the recovery time for patients experiencing alcohol withdrawal.

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