Acamprosate (calcium acetylhomotaurinate), a synthetic compound with a similar chemical structure to that of gamma-aminobutyric acid, is thought to act via several mechanisms affecting multiple neurotransmitter systems; inhibition of neuronal hyperexcitability by antagonism of excitatory amino acid activity and reduction of calcium ion fluxes has been suggested as its predominant mechanism of action. The drug is the first agent specifically designed to maintain abstinence in alcohol (ethanol)-dependent patients after detoxification. Voluntary oral ethanol consumption in ethanol-preferring or ethanol-dependent rats is dose-dependently reduced by acamprosate: total fluid intake and food consumption are not affected. The drug does not potentiate the acute or chronic toxic effects of ethanol and has no hypnotic, antidepressant, anxiolytic or muscle-relaxant effects in animals. There is no evidence of abuse potential with acamprosate. Oral acamprosate 1.3 or 2 g/day in 3 divided doses administered for 3 to 12 months to alcohol-dependent patients after detoxification was more effective than placebo in preventing alcohol relapse according to abstinence rates, duration of abstinence, gamma-glutamyl transferase levels and/or a variety of other clinical or biological end-points. Concomitant psychosocial/behavioural therapies were used in some trials. Compared with those with placebo, the superior abstinence rates and durations of abstinence with acamprosate were maintained during 6- to 12-month post-treatment follow-up periods, and greater abstinence rates with acamprosate were confirmed in a pooled analysis of data from 11 randomised placebo-controlled trials involving a total of 3338 patients with alcohol dependence. The efficacy of acamprosate appears to be dose dependent and enhanced by the addition of disulfiram. Acamprosate was generally well tolerated in placebo-controlled trials. The most common adverse events were gastrointestinal (especially diarrhoea) or dermatological and were mostly mild and transient. The percentage of patient withdrawals because of adverse events was similar in acamprosate and placebo groups. No trials have compared the efficacy or tolerability of acamprosate with those of other treatment approaches (including opiate antagonists or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) aimed at maintaining abstinence in detoxified alcohol-dependent patients. Thus, acamprosate, as an adjunct to psychosocial/behavioural therapies, represents a novel advance for the management of alcohol-dependent patients in the postdetoxification period. Longer term and comparative trials with other active therapies are required to confirm these promising results.