- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

BOSTON — The hardy, invasive, intrusive kudzu vine, introduced to this country 75 years ago to control soil erosion, could have what it takes to curb binge drinking, research suggests.

The vine, which can grow at the rate of a foot a day and has been called “the vine that ate the South” because it grows with such abandon in the Deep South, appears to contain a compound that can be effective in reducing alcohol intake among humans.

Researcher Scott Lukas did not have any trouble rounding up volunteers for his study, published in this month’s issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Mr. Lukas’ team at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital set up a makeshift “apartment” in a laboratory, complete with a television, reclining chair and a refrigerator stocked with beer.

Findings show that subjects who took kudzu drank an average of 1.8 beers per session, compared with the 3.5 beers consumed by those who took a placebo.

Mr. Lukas is not certain why but speculates that kudzu increases blood alcohol levels and speeds up its effects. More simply put, the subjects needed fewer beers to feel drunk.

“That rapid infusion of alcohol is satisfying them and taking away their desire for more drinks,” he said. “That’s only a theory. It’s the best we’ve got so far.”

Whatever its medicinal properties turn out to be, kudzu is the stuff of folklore in the South. It has inspired cookbooks — deep-fried kudzu and kudzu quiche are sometimes served on Southern supper tables — and dozens of tall tales. The poet James Dickey wrote: /In Georgia, the legend says/That you must close your windows/at night to keep it out of the house/The glass is tinged with green, even so…/

The vine, introduced from China and Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, has few natural enemies, and the speed with which it covers and transforms telephone poles, trees, junked cars and abandoned rural outhouses into weird shapes has inspired tales told around campfires: Kudzu has been known to pluck small children from the back of moving pick-ups, or even to swallow slow-moving halfbacks at night football games.

Now science is treating it seriously. In 2003, David Overstreet and other scientists found the herb to be effective in reducing alcohol intake 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 Mr. Overstreet, who described Mr. Lukas’ work as “groundbreaking.”

Mr. Lukas recruited 14 men and women in their 20s to spend four 90-minute sessions consuming beer and watching television. Researchers selected people who said they regularly consumed three to four drinks per day. After the first session, some subjects received capsules of kudzu, others a placebo.

“Unbeknownst to them, I was weighing that mug of beer every time they took a sip,” Mr. Lukas said. “We actually got a sip-by-sip analysis of their drinking behavior.”

None of the subjects had any side effects from mixing kudzu with beer.

“It’s perfectly safe, from what we can tell,” he 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, Mr. 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,” he said.

Mr. Lukas’ study was inspired by Dr. Wing Ming Keung, a pathology professor at Harvard Medical School who has studied kudzu’s potential medical applications. Dr. Keung, not directly involved in Mr. Lukas’ study, 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,” Dr. Keung said.

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