Semaglutide: A New Weapon Against Alcohol Use Disorder?

Jun, 2024


Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) represent a major public health crisis, contributing to over 80,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. Despite the serious toll, treatment options have been sorely limited – until now. Emerging evidence suggests a surprising new possibility: the diabetes and obesity drug semaglutide may hold promise for tackling this intractable condition.

Alcohol use disorders encompass a spectrum of problematic drinking behaviors, from binge drinking to full-blown alcoholism. An estimated 29.5 million Americans aged 12 and older – over 10% of the population – suffered from an AUD in 2021. The consequences are staggering, contributing to a massive global disease burden and robbing countless lives.

Yet, despite the scale of the problem, the therapeutic arsenal against AUDs remains woefully sparse. Only three medications are approved by the FDA to treat AUDs, and their effects are modest at best. New solutions are desperately needed.

The key may lie in an unlikely source: a diabetes and obesity drug called semaglutide. Originally approved to treat type 2 diabetes in 2017 and expanded for weight management in 2021, semaglutide has emerged as a potential game-changer for AUDs.

The connection started with anecdotal reports. Patients prescribed semaglutide for other conditions began describing an unexpected side effect: a reduced desire to drink alcohol. These personal accounts were soon backed by scientific evidence. A study analyzing social media posts and follow-up interviews found that both semaglutide and a related drug, tirzepatide, were associated with decreased alcohol consumption in individuals with obesity.

Now, a major new study provides the most robust real-world data yet on semaglutide’s potential benefits for AUDs. Analyzing electronic health records of over 83,000 patients, the researchers found that those prescribed semaglutide had a 50-56% lower risk of developing a new AUD diagnosis compared to those taking other anti-obesity medications. Even more remarkably, semaglutide was associated with a 44-75% reduction in the risk of recurrent AUD diagnoses among those with a prior history of the condition.

“These findings provide strong evidence that semaglutide may have beneficial effects for both preventing and treating alcohol use disorders in real-world populations,” says lead author Rong Xu, director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Drug Discovery at Case Western Reserve University.

The results were consistent across key subgroups, including gender, age, race, and the presence of type 2 diabetes. Importantly, the team also replicated their findings in a separate cohort of over 600,000 patients with type 2 diabetes, further bolstering the case for semaglutide’s potential.

“This is a really remarkable and unexpected finding,” says Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a co-author on the study. “If these results hold up in clinical trials, semaglutide could represent a major breakthrough in the treatment of alcohol use disorders.”

The mechanisms behind semaglutide’s potential anti-alcohol effects are not yet fully understood, but researchers have several compelling hypotheses.

“This is a really remarkable and unexpected finding,”

At the core lies semaglutide’s target: the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor. GLP-1 is a hormone that plays a key role in regulating food intake and blood sugar levels. By activating GLP-1 receptors, semaglutide is thought to modulate the brain’s reward pathways, dampening the reinforcing effects of both food and alcohol.

“There’s growing evidence that the brain’s reward system, centered on the dopamine pathways, is a common substrate driving both overeating and alcohol/drug addiction,” explains Volkow. “Since semaglutide can influence that system, it may be able to simultaneously curb the urge for both food and alcohol.”

Semaglutide may also buffer stress responses, another major driver of addictive behaviors. GLP-1 receptors are found in brain regions like the habenula that are involved in stress processing and negative reinforcement. By acting on these systems, semaglutide could help patients better cope with the anxiety and cravings that often precipitate relapse.

Moreover, semaglutide’s anti-inflammatory properties may play a role. Inflammation has been linked to the development and progression of substance use disorders, so semaglutide’s ability to tamp down this response could be therapeutically relevant.

Finally, semaglutide may influence alcohol’s pharmacokinetics – how the body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes, and eliminates the substance. By slowing gastric emptying, semaglutide could delay alcohol absorption, potentially reducing its rewarding effects. The drug may also alter alcohol metabolism, increasing the production of acetaldehyde, which has aversive properties.

“The findings need to be replicated in a controlled clinical setting before we can make any firm conclusions.”

“There are likely multiple mechanisms at play, acting on both central and peripheral pathways,” says Xu. “Semaglutide seems to be uniquely positioned to target the core drivers of alcohol use disorders from multiple angles.”

While the real-world data is promising, the researchers caution that randomized clinical trials are still needed to definitively establish semaglutide’s efficacy for AUDs. Fortunately, several such trials are already underway.

“This is an important first step, but we can’t consider semaglutide a treatment for alcohol use disorders just yet,” says Volkow. “The findings need to be replicated in a controlled clinical setting before we can make any firm conclusions.”

One such trial, dubbed STAR (Semaglutide Therapy for Alcohol Reduction), is currently recruiting patients with AUD. Led by researchers at the University of Oklahoma, the study will evaluate semaglutide’s impact on alcohol consumption, craving, and other key outcomes.

A separate trial, STAR-T, is exploring semaglutide’s effects in an AUD population in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And the SEMALCO study, based at the University of Chicago, is investigating semaglutide’s potential in patients with both AUD and obesity.

Overall, the pipeline of semaglutide trials for AUD totals five registered studies, a testament to the growing excitement around this potential new therapy. If the results match the real-world data, semaglutide could represent a major breakthrough – not just for AUDs, but for the broader field of addiction medicine.

Of course, semaglutide’s path to clinical adoption is not without hurdles. One potential concern is the drug’s impact on mental health. There have been some reports of increased suicidal ideation associated with GLP-1 receptor agonists like semaglutide, though a recent study by Xu and colleagues found the opposite – semaglutide was actually linked to a lower risk of suicidal thoughts.

“We’ll need to carefully monitor for any mental health effects in the AUD trials,” says Volkow. “Comorbid conditions like depression and anxiety are common in this patient population, so it’s critical we understand how semaglutide may interact with those factors.”

Another key question is whether semaglutide’s benefits will translate equally to different severities of AUD. The current real-world data looked at both incident (new-onset) and recurrent diagnoses, but the underlying causes and optimal treatment approaches can vary considerably across the spectrum of alcohol use disorders.

“It’s possible semaglutide may be more effective for certain phenotypes of AUD than others,” notes Xu. “The clinical trials will need to explore that in more detail.”

Additionally, the current data does not allow for direct comparisons between semaglutide’s different formulations and dose levels. The drug is approved in both a higher-dose version for weight management (Wegovy) and a lower-dose version for diabetes (Ozempic). Understanding if and how these variations impact AUD outcomes will be an important area for future research.

Finally, cost and accessibility remain crucial considerations. Semaglutide is a specialty medication, and its high price tag may limit its reach, especially for vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by AUDs. Ensuring equitable access will be a key challenge if the drug proves effective.

Despite these caveats, the findings on semaglutide represent a tantalizing new chapter in the fight against alcohol use disorders. For a condition that has long resisted effective pharmacological treatment, the prospect of a repurposed diabetes drug offering substantial benefits is nothing short of paradigm-shifting.

“This is the kind of discovery that can really transform the field,” says Volkow. “If semaglutide can live up to this initial promise, it could open up entirely new avenues for addressing the alcohol use disorder epidemic.”

Of course, the real test lies ahead in the clinical trials. But for the millions suffering from the devastating consequences of problematic drinking, the glimmer of hope offered by semaglutide is undoubtedly welcome news. The road ahead may be long, but the potential rewards are immense.

As the research continues to unfold, one thing is clear: the future of addiction treatment may hinge on an unexpected hero – a diabetes drug that could hold the key to conquering one of society’s most persistent and pernicious scourges.


  1. Wang, W., Volkow, N.D., Berger, N.A. et al. Associations of semaglutide with incidence and recurrence of alcohol use disorder in real-world population. Nat Commun 15, 4548 (2024).

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About the Author

  • Dilruwan Herath

    Dilruwan Herath is a British infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical medical executive with over 25 years of experience. As a doctor, he specialized in infectious diseases and immunology, developing a resolute focus on public health impact. Throughout his career, Dr. Herath has held several senior medical leadership roles in large global pharmaceutical companies, leading transformative clinical changes and ensuring access to innovative medicines. Currently, he serves as an expert member for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine on it Infectious Disease Commitee and continues advising life sciences companies. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Herath enjoys painting landscapes, motorsports, computer programming, and spending time with his young family. He maintains an avid interest in science and technology. He is a founder of DarkDrug

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