Alcoholism drug linked to 'dramatic' weight loss in obesity study

A new study has linked an old school drug used to treat alcoholism with rapid weight loss and protective effects in obese mice, hinting at a potential new treatment for obesity. The research comes from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging, which found that mice given the medication disulfiram lost weight much faster than mice that only went on a diet.

Disulfiram is a drug that has been used to treat alcohol use disorder for more than five decades, according to NIH, which found that it may also be able to protect against metabolic damage associated with obesity while helping return the subject to a healthy weight. The study involved both male and female mice; it is described as a 'basic research finding.'

When it comes to alcoholism, disulfiram works by causing the patient to feel nauseous if they consume alcohol. Researchers became interested in studying the drug's potential use in cases of metabolic disorders and obesity due to the class of drug's reputation for treating rats with type-2 diabetes.

The study involved a total of four groups of lab mice that were fattened up over the course of 12 weeks: one fed a high-fat diet, another fed a high-fat diet alongside a low dose of disulfiram, yet another given a high-fat diet alongside a high dose of disulfiram, and a group given their standard diet. The mice were fed these arrangements for an additional 12 weeks.

The results were described as 'dramatic.' The study found that overweight mice in the disulfiram groups experienced drops in both metabolic damage and body weight despite eating a high-fat diet. The mice given a higher dose of disulfiram lost up to 40-percent of their body weight in four weeks; mice in both of the drug groups also had improvements in blood glucose akin to the mice that were put on a standard diet without the medication.

NIA scientist Michel Bernier, Ph.D., explained:

When we first went down this path, we did not know what to expect, but once we started to see data showing dramatic weight loss and leaner body mass in the mice, we turned to each other and couldn't quite believe our eyes.

The study found that the benefits likely resulted from the drug directly, not from behavioral changes caused by the medication. The mice were not made to exercise as part of the study nor did the scientist notice any increased activity from them during the study. As well, the study didn't note any harm caused by the disulfiram use. It's important to remember, of course, that these results pertain to mice, not necessarily to humans.