Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have discovered a surprising secondary function for an existing drug. Tandospirone is used in Japan and China to treat anxiety and depression, but now Australian researchers have found that it can "reboot" the brain to reverse some of the negative effects of heavy alcohol consumption.

Tandospirone, or Sediel as it's known commercially, is most commonly prescribed to combat generalized anxiety disorder and depression. It works by selectively acting on the serotonin receptor 5-HT1A in the brain, and according to the Japanese company that produces it, the drug is non-addictive, non-sedative, and virtually free of adverse side effects.

Depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand with substance abuse, including alcohol. As the QUT researchers say, those negative emotions can spring up during withdrawal, and may lead to a relapse. Tandospirone may be able to interrupt that cycle by quelling depression and anxiety, preventing a recovering alcoholic from caving in to their cravings again.

The team modeled chronic long-term binge drinking in mice over 15 weeks, then treated some with tandospirone every day for two weeks. The animals that received the drug had lower anxiety associated with alcohol withdrawal, and as such the mice decreased their binge drinking when given a choice.

But the discovery that really surprised the team was the fact that tandospirone was also able to reverse some effects that binge drinking can inflict on the process on neuron generation. Normally, the brain replenishes cells in a process called neurogenesis, but long-term heavy drinking can damage that process. The QUT study found that tandospirone can undo the negative impact on neurogenesis caused by excessive alcohol.

"This is not just another drug that shows promise in helping to reduce binge drinking," says Selena Bartlett, lead researcher on the study. "While it could possibly have that effect, it might be able to help reboot the brain and reverse the deficits the alcohol abuse causes – both the inhibition to the brain's ability to regenerate, and the behavioural consequences that come from what alcohol is doing to the brain, like increases in anxiety and depression."

The researchers say that other symptoms of substance abuse, such as memory and learning impairments, might also be the result of interrupted neurogenesis. If so, tandospirone could also help reverse these problems as well.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The team describes the research in the video below.

View gallery - 4 images