Rationale: The α4β2 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor partial agonist varenicline has been reported to reduce drinking among both heavy-drinking smokers and primary alcoholics, and this effect may be related to varenicline-mediated reduction of alcohol craving. Among smokers, varenicline has been reported to modulate cigarette cue-elicited brain activation in several reward-related areas.
Objectives: This pilot study tested varenicline's effects on drinking, alcohol craving, and alcohol cue-elicited activation of reward-related brain areas among non-treatment-seeking alcohol-dependent individuals.
Methods: Thirty-five such individuals (mean age = 30, 57 % male, 76 % heavy drinking days in the past month, 15 smokers) were randomized to either varenicline (titrated to 2 mg) or placebo for 14 days, and were administered an alcohol cue reactivity fMRI task on day 14. A priori regions of interest (ROIs) were bilateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), right ventral striatum (VS), and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC).
Results: Despite good medication adherence, varenicline did not reduce heavy drinking days or other drinking parameters. It did, however, increase self-reported control over alcohol-related thoughts and reduced cue-elicited activation bilaterally in the OFC, but not in other brain areas.
Conclusions: These data indicate that varenicline reduces alcohol craving and some of the neural substrates of alcohol cue reactivity. However, varenicline effects on drinking mediated by cue-elicited brain activation and craving might be best observed among treatment-seekers motivated to reduce their alcohol consumption.