MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Kudzu, as you well may know, is that pesky, fast-growing, carpetlike vine that's swallowed up gardens throughout the South. The invasive vine is the bane of environmentalists, the curse of serious gardeners and, as it turns out, a potential cure for problem drinkers. Harvard researchers have found that a concentrated extract of kudzu root can help curb excessive drinking. Scott E. Lukas was the lead researcher in the study, which appears in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Dr. Lukas is the director of behavioral psychopharmacology at the McLean Hospital. He joins us from WGBH in Boston.
Doctor, you tested this on a group of 20-something drinkers, as I understand. Could you give us a quick description of how the experiment was conducted?
Dr. SCOTT E. LUKAS (Director of Behavioral Psychopharmacology, McLean Hospital): Yes. We devised a simulated home, or small apartment, at McLean Hospital and fitted it up very nicely with reclining chairs and cable TV and VCRs, whatever. And in the fridge, we had--stocked with their preferred brand of beer as well as other beverages. And they were simply allowed to come into the lab, and for an hour and a half they could drink as much or as little as they wanted to. And at different times we treated them for a week with either kudzu or a placebo, and they didn't know which one they were getting, and we didn't know which one they were getting. It's called a double-blind experiment.
And so after that week of treatment, when they came to the lab, we measured their drinking using a very specialized table that we had developed that actually has a scale built into it. And the table actually weighs the mug of beer, and each time they took a sip, we could actually see how much they were consuming each time.
NORRIS: And they didn't know this?
Dr. LUKAS: They didn't know this, no. And what we found, very interestingly, is that when these same subjects were treated with kudzu, the amount of alcohol that they consumed during that hour and a half was reduced approximately by one-half. And that's a very strong finding because the same subjects came to the lab after being treated with placebo, and they drank a lot more alcohol. So that type of experimental design gives us a really good feeling about the results and makes us very confident that the kudzu root is definitely having some effect.
NORRIS: How does the plant extract work? Does it turn something off in the brain? Does it change the taste buds, slow the system down?
Dr. LUKAS: Oh, that was a really great question. And, unfortunately, the study wasn't designed specifically to figure out how it worked. We were really trying to see whether it worked or not. However, when you analyze the way in which they drank their beers, it gives us some insight or some clue as to what might be going on. And so what we think is happening perhaps is that the kudzu is helping to satisfy the brain; that that first drink that they take satisfies the desire or the urge for more alcohol, and so it shuts down, and so they no longer consume the rest of the drinks.
NORRIS: Practical use for these findings?
Dr. LUKAS: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, one of the most important findings, I think, that's coming out of this is that this particular type of drinking pattern that we were studying, that is called binge drinking. These are individuals who may not drink every single night, but when they do drink, they often will consume five or six or even seven beers or wine at a time. And what this data is showing is that the kudzu can arrest that behavior. And that has implications for people who are currently drinking in this kind of fashion, but it also has implications for individuals who used to drink and have stopped drinking because, as you well know, in our field, getting someone to stop drinking is just half the battle. The second half is staying off. And if you have a slip, for example, oftentimes that leads to a full-blown relapse. We believe that if kudzu is on board, because that first drink seems to satisfy the brain, they won't be tempted to take that second and third and fourth beer, which would then cause a full-blown relapse.
NORRIS: Well, Doctor, thanks for talking to us. If you need some extra kudzu for this study, you ought to get down to Washington and take a look at my back yard.
Dr. LUKAS: I can't tell you how many offers I've had to come to people's back yards and dig it out for them.
NORRIS: I imagine.
Dr. LUKAS: Thanks so much.
NORRIS: Scott Lukas was the lead researcher in a study looking at the effects of kudzu on excessive drinking. He's the director of behavioral psychopharmacology at McLean Hospital just outside Boston.
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