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BOSTON (AP) - A group of 20-something drinkers seemed to lose the urge to binge-drink when they took pills made from kudzu, that ubiquitous vine that blankets the South, researchers reported.
The finding, described as groundbreaking by one expert, might one day lead to a way to attack the binge-drinking problem.
Researcher Scott Lukas, with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, had no trouble finding volunteers for the study, which required them to hang out in an "apartment," complete with television, recliner and fridge stocked with beer. This apartment-style laboratory was set up in the hospital, and the volunteers were told to spend a 90-minute session drinking beer and watching TV.
Those who took kudzu pills drank an average of 1.8 beers per session, compared with the 3.5 beers consumed by those who took a placebo.
Lukas was not certain why, but speculated that kudzu increases blood-alcohol levels and speeds up its effects. In other words, the drinkers needed fewer beers to feel drunk.
"That rapid infusion of alcohol is satisfying them and taking away their desire for more drinks," Lukas said. "That's only a theory. It's the best we've got so far."
In 2003, David Overstreet and other researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied the plant found it had a similar effect on rats.
"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence from China that kudzu could be useful, but this is the first documented evidence that it could reduce drinking in humans," said Overstreet, who reviewed the study and called Lukas' work "groundbreaking."
The 14 men and women chosen for the study were people who said they regularly had three to four drinks a day. After all of them spent a 90-minute session drinking and watching TV, they were divided in two groups for follow-up sessions.
A chemist extracted several forms of plant estrogen from the roots, stems and leaves of kudzu and used it to make tablets. One group was given two tablets three times a day for a week, and the other group was given placebos.
After another round of 90-minute beer-drinking, the placebo group was given the kudzu tablets and vice versa.
"Unbeknownst to them, I was weighing that mug of beer every time they took a sip," said Lukas, who hid a digital scale inside an end table where the subjects were told to rest their beers. "We actually got a sip-by-sip analysis of their drinking behavior."
None of the test subjects had any side effects.
"It's perfectly safe, from what we can tell," Lukas said. "Individuals reported feeling a little more tipsy or lightheaded, but not enough to make them walk into walls or stumble and fall."
Though kudzu won't turn drinkers into teetotalers, Lukas said, he hopes it can help heavy drinkers to cut back. "That way, they're a lot closer to being able to cut down completely."
Lukas' study, published in this month's issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, was inspired by Dr. Wing Ming Keung, a pathology professor at Harvard Medical School who has studied the potential medical applications of kudzu.
Keung said he has extracted a compound from kudzu root that he hopes to turn into a drug for reducing alcoholics' cravings.
"The most urgent need is helping people who cannot help themselves, who need a drug to help them stop drinking," Keung said.