Scientists have found that a new drug designed to treat anxiety and depression reverses the harmful effects of heavy drinking on the brain and could help treat alcoholics.

Researchers at Queensland University of Technology gave mice large amounts of alcohol for 15 weeks - equivalent to the amount a binge-drinking human would be consuming. They then fed the mice a daily dose of tandospirone for two weeks and found that it reversed the inhibiting effects of the alcohol on neurogenesis – the ability of the brain to grow and replace neurons (brain cells).

The drug – which has limited side effects - is only currently available in Japan and China.

"We know that with heavy drinking you are inhibiting your ability to grow new neurons, brain cells. Alcohol is specifically very damaging for neurons," said Selena Bartlett, lead author of a study describing the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Other studies in mice have shown that tandospirone improves brain neurogenesis but this is the first time it has been shown that it can totally reverse the neurogenic deficits induced by alcohol."

The team made their findings while investigating new treatment strategies for alcohol abuse and addiction.

Tandospirone could help reverse the damaging effects of alcohol in the brain QUT

It is hoped that the drug could be used to treat some of the damaging health effects of alcoholism by essentially "rebooting" the brain. It may also be useful in treating other substance abuse disorders.

"This opens the way to look at [whether] neurogenesis is associated with other substance-abuse deficits, such as in memory and learning, and whether this compound can reverse these," Bartlett said.