Pharmacological manipulation of the ghrelin system and alcohol hangover symptoms in heavy drinking individuals: Is there a link?

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Ghrelin, an orexigenic peptide synthesized in the stomach, is a key player in the gut-brain axis. In addition to its role in regulating food intake and energy homeostasis, ghrelin has been shown to modulate alcohol-related behaviors. Alcohol consumption frequently results in hangover, an underexplored phenomenon with considerable medical, psychological, and socioeconomic consequences. While the pathophysiology of hangover is not clear, contributions of mechanisms such as alcohol-induced metabolic/endocrine changes, inflammatory/immune response, oxidative stress, and gut dysbiosis have been reported. Interestingly, these mechanisms considerably overlap with ghrelin's physiological functions. Here, we investigated whether pharmacological manipulation of the ghrelin system may affect alcohol hangover symptoms. Data were obtained from two placebo-controlled laboratory studies. The first study tested the effects of intravenous (IV) ghrelin and consisted of two experiments: a progressive-ratio IV alcohol self-administration (IV-ASA) and a fixed-dose IV alcohol clamp. The second study tested the effects of an oral ghrelin receptor inverse agonist (PF-5190457) and included a fixed-dose oral alcohol administration experiment. Alcohol hangover data were collected the morning after each alcohol administration experiment using the Acute Hangover Scale (AHS). IV ghrelin, compared to placebo, significantly reduced alcohol hangover after IV-ASA (p = 0.04) and alcohol clamp (p = 0.04); PF-5190457 had no significant effect on AHS scores. Females reported significantly higher hangover symptoms than males following the IV-ASA experiment (p = 0.04), but no gender × drug condition (ghrelin vs. placebo) effect was found. AHS total scores were positively correlated with peak subjective responses, including ‘stimulation’ (p = 0.08), ‘sedation’ (p = 0.009), ‘feel high’ (p = 0.05), and ‘feel intoxicated’ (p = 0.03) during the IV-ASA. IV ghrelin blunted the positive association between alcohol sedation and hangover as shown by trend-level drug × sedation effect (p = 0.08). This is the first study showing that exogenous ghrelin administration, but not ghrelin receptor inverse agonism, affects hangover symptoms. Future research should investigate the potential mechanism(s) underlying this effect.

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Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior